Authenticity, what does it mean?

How Much of Your

“Authentic Self” 

Should You Really Bring to Work?

by Susan McPherson

February 12, 2021

Summary.   If you see networking and work interactions as transactional, you’re likely missing out on an opportunity to form deeper connections — which are integral to career success and growth, no matter what field you work in. How do you actually share your “authentic self.”

Job and life advice for young professionals. See more from Ascend here.

You’ve probably heard this advice before: Bring your “authentic” self to work. It makes sense. Being yourself is the best way to form meaningful relationships, which are integral to career success and growth, no matter what field you work in. Research shows that people with a robust social network have better job performance, feel more fulfilled, and even live longer.

But how do you actually share your “authentic” self in a professional setting, and how can you do it in a smart and sustainable way?

Showing up totally unfiltered and trusting everyone who crosses your path could go downhill quickly. On the other hand, if you keep things surface level and hide your true self, you might miss out on forming the type of relationships that can enrich your life and career.

As a business owner, this is a territory I’ve had to navigate time and again — and I can tell you firsthand that building strong connections with my colleagues and peers is what has fueled my success. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way about how to form these kinds of relationships in ways that feel productive, and not draining.

There is no “work self.”

Do you feel like there’s one version of you that shows up during work meetings and another, more authentic version that shows up with friends? It’s understandable — you don’t choose your colleagues or clients, and most work meetings require a certain degree of professionalism. But if you see networking and work interactions as transactional, you’re likely missing out on an opportunity to form deeper connections, which can only happen when you show up as your full self.

Let me give you an example: I recently joined a business Zoom call where everyone was talking about the weather. Oh, it’s sunny there? It’s so gloomy here! Weather is not a bad topic. It’s something we all experience. But it’s also probably not going to lead to a meaningful conversation. When I joined the call, I related the weather back to something more personal: I am not fond of rainy days because walking is THE thing that has been helping me get through this pandemic. I’ve walked more than 1,200 miles since September.

I shared something specific and vulnerable. I also spoke like a human, as I would in a room of friends. This isn’t something I have to “try” to do — at least not anymore. It’s a skill I’ve developed over the course of my career through regular practice. I learned that people become more comfortable when you show a wee bit more vulnerability. It’s why, today, I don’t have a delineation between work and personal connections: Friends I meet at the gym often turn into clients, and clients turn into friends who come to dinner parties.

I recommend you practice this yourself. Try to see everyone you come across as a human, rather than a work contact.

It’s a practice.

Showing up as your “authentic” self is the baseline to building meaningful relationships at work, but it also requires time and intent. The best tool you have here is listening. When I have a conversation with someone new and sense a good connection, I try to pay attention to important details like what they’re passionate about, where they work, or something they’ve found specifically challenging.

Then, I follow up.

If I find an article that reminds me of our conversation, I send it. If I’m hosting an event that they might find valuable, I invite them. If I meet someone else I think they should meet, I introduce them. On a new business call, if I visited a restaurant recommended by a colleague, I make a point to follow up with them and let them know how good the hummus or pasta puttanesca was. Being an active listener also helps you gauge quickly who you want to build deeper connections with (or not).

What this all really boils down to, in addition to being a good listener, is asking, “How can I help?” Being generous with your suggestions, ideas and connections — even when you don’t need something from the other person — is one of the most powerful ways to connect.

That said, help in ways that energize you rather than exhaust you. Don’t take on things that will require too much of your time — a three-minute introduction is low effort, but high impact! — and focus on helping people whom you authentically respect, rather than ones who you worry may take advantage or put you in an uncomfortable position.

You don’t have to connect with everyone.

Bringing your true self to work means being vulnerable, and not everyone deserves or needs to see that side of you. And of course, you aren’t obligated to help every person who crosses your path. Setting boundaries is important for a number of reasons: It helps you preserve your time, prevents burnout, protects you from breaches of trust, and allows you to focus on the relationships that give you joy.

First, remember the goal is not to tell your life’s story to every person the moment you meet them. You can build toward meaningful relationships with the right people — trust your gut on who to trust. Beware of people who only want to hear about you but don’t reveal anything about themselves or people who only want to talk and don’t care to listen.

Relationships should be reciprocal. Start by choosing a handful of people in your professional life with who you want to deepen your relationship and ask them for a coffee date or virtual drink. If you don’t authentically enjoy the relationship, it’s not worth your time.

Focusing on and making space for these deeper connections has allowed me to fuse my life and my work without burnout, overwhelm, or anxiety. It can work for you, too. You have the power to create your own communities. Begin with something simple: showing up.

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