“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken,” said Oscar Wilde. And this gets a lot of appreciation. But let’s get honest. How far do you think it is possible to show our identities and vulnerabilities at work? Where do we push the envelope, and when do we draw the line?

In a survey, when over 450 employed adults were asked to imagine an important professional interaction — interviewing for their dream job, conducting a negotiation, or pitching an idea to investors — 66% of them said they would cater to others’ expectations, rather than simply be themselves, because they felt the former is more effective.

Why? We do not want to risk rejection. We want to be accepted, feel safe, or wanted. We think the best way to do that is to blend in, cater to others, and manage our image. Research shows that many people, especially minority groups, feel the need to hide aspects of themselves. They may omit information about their lives, or change what they wear or believe, in order to fit in. A gay person might not display pictures of his partner at work. A working mom might never talk about her kids, to appear “serious” about her career. A white man might keep quiet about a mental health issue he’s facing.

But for how long? Not bringing at least some part of our real selves to the table, is like plugging a hole in a dam with cello-tape. Hiding our true identities can stunt performance and motivation. It is stifling. Closeted LGBT employees feel much more isolated at work than their openly gay peers, and 52% of closeted employees feel their careers have stagnated, compared to just over a third of their out colleagues. Says a study respondent, “When you look at the leaders of our organization, most are of the same gender, age, and background. They have the same values. In order to be successful in this organization, I feel like I need to fit into the existing norms.”

If you feel unable to ‘be yourself’, here are three questions Prof. Dorie Clark of Duke University asks you to consider:

  1. What’s your evidence for believing you’ll be penalized? Our reactions are driven by fear. Take stock of if you’ve really seen someone get punished for being different, whether it is displaying tattoos, wearing colorful clothes, having a unique political or sexual orientation, etc.
  2. What’s the worst that could happen? Let your mind run here but be logical. Think about what can you reveal about yourself and how would that land. Measure the impact.
  3. What is a pilot you could do? Do a test run of being yourself. Have a conversation expressing your views about God. Wear colorful socks for a week. Notice people’s reactions, and then decide if you can bring 10% more of yourself into work next week.

We can speak of inclusion, but much of it will remain just talk until we recognize that each of us has a role to play in making it real. Be it with creating inclusive spaces, or with allowing ourselves to be included.

Leave a Reply