Let’s Be Real

My best friend Jess is a rockstar. So when I read an article in The New York Times a few months ago suggesting that women ought not to be themselves in a professional setting--at least not completely themselves--I knew I had to ask Jess if she agreed. Is that true? I wondered. Do you have to hide who you are to get ahead?

Jess is no stranger to sticking out because of who she is. She is an environmental engineer, has worked as a technology consultant, and now is a senior product manager at a clean energy company.  In her undergraduate degree, she was one of 23 females in her major, outnumbering the males by fifteen! Yet women represented just 34% of all engineers.  But still, although women may be able break the glass ceiling to some degree, it would be false to ignore that the ceiling, along with its house, for a long time belonged to men. So, to what extent can women be their true selves? How comfortable are they in these glass-shattering days?

A few months ago, I called up Jess to ask her what she thought about being one’s authentic self.

Here’s what she had to say:

Q: How do you express your genuine self at work, Jess?

A: I am authentic at work. It is a practice of self-monitoring. For instance, when I first worked with a specific client, I wanted to learn as much as possible so I could start adding value. I started interviewing everyone within the IT department [for whom I was consulting] to achieve an understanding of their technical system. But, I got a ton of pushback, as if there were a feeling of I don’t understand what this person is trying to do or I don’t even know who this person is and what she wants to accomplish. I was just trying to learn as much as possible, so that pushback hurt me. I realize now that I probably seemed like a threat. I was trying to authentically learn, but that came off differently than I anticipated. So now, I try and learn as much as I can from a new client but I am aware of already-built channels of command. I am still genuine, but I am aware of what makes clients happy and how they respond to what I am doing.

Q: Do you think what you are doing is focusing less on authenticity and more on sincerity?

A:  Sure, I think it is about avoiding stepping on people’s toes. I want to be authentic but I also recognize that people work differently so I need to give them what they need. So, sure, in a way I tone back my natural instincts to show my sincerity over my authenticity.

Q: How do you tone yourself back, to a degree?

A: Well, again, I’m always authentic, I just also try to be sincere.

Q: Yeah, I mean, authenticity means what, exactly? The definition is, of undisputed origin. So, maybe you flex to adapt to others’ origins, or expectations? So, is the trick for people to be flexible? Or is it really about sincerity, which is more about being truthful, or honest?

A:You have to soften your message to seem less daunting, and allow yourself time to craft the correct response and solutions. I honestly may not think we can meet the client's expectation due to technology constraints but I would tell the client that I will research the requirement and get back to then with options in the next meeting Ideally, I think I find a balance between being sincere, in the sense that I am purposeful with my actions, and authentic, in that I am real, and genuine with people.

Q: How do you typically compose yourself around others?

A: In any relationship with a client, or a friend, or whomever, you have to find a way to be constructive together. You have to find a way to be yourself and also get along with people.

Q: When are you most not yourself?

A: I suppose sometimes in new situations where things are proceeding in a way different from how I normally learn. Like in a large group, I may not be able to ask questions as freely as I would otherwise be so inclined.

Q: Is that okay to not be yourself then?

A: Yes, it is okay to be more humble and low key, because in that situation, I am thinking about who needs to benefit the most. It is not me by asking questions, but perhaps the client who is listening in, as well. I’m never the opposite of my personality, I’m just evolving in ways productive for the situation, and introspectively adjusting.

Q: It sounds like you are turning  off pieces of yourself when needed, and having an adaptive personality. That is not easy to do!

A: Definitely not but yes, I think that is it. You are always yourself, if you think about it that way.

From my talk with Jess, I gathered that being authentic is about understanding yourself, your motivations, how you think, and how you can add value to a client or a community. But, it also means knowing your faults, knowing what is in the best interest of the group, and therefore turning on and off certain qualities to achieve a sincere outcome. Whether you are working as a consultant, a social worker, a lawyer, or any role at all, being authentic is about responding to your environs and adapting accordingly. Poet John Donne once wrote that "no man is an island entire of itself."[1] When we have responsibilities to others, we need to remember this truth. Our actions have impacts, and we are our best selves when we remember that the way we carry ourselves matters. Especially in these tumultous political times, we need to pay close attention to our behavior, thinking about how to best inspire others to get behind the cause we are pushing. So, we must listen, and then respond, think and evaluate before doing. In this way, we can be authentically ourselves, with a touch more of compassion. And in this way, we can rise up and lead others towards the social change we believe in.

[1] "No Man is an Island," John Donne.

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