Be yourself — at work?
Contemporary authenticity for design, technology, and business professionals
“We are at our most productive and creative when we are happy and being ourselves at work”, writes the founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson in his blog in April 2018.
It is hard to argue against that. Yet, if you are anything like me, you find there is something off with this statement. What does it actually mean to be yourself in a professional context?
We all know not all behaviors are accepted. It is ill-advised to bring forth your personal political or religious beliefs with your clients — even if being true to yourself. Neither is showing or sharing feelings that are considered negative, most prominently sadness, fear, and anger; even if you truly experience them.
It seems being yourself is accepted only so long as it includes certain behaviors. This doesn’t strike as truly authentic. Yet, we widely accept being yourself as profound and meaningful advice. This dissonance is troubling.
We don’t know what being yourself means in professional context.
We need to start thinking and talking about being yourself in a more meaningful way.
Part 1: The three meanings of being yourself
We generally use the phrase be yourself as one-size-fits-all solution for encouragement. It is useful guidance for a friend preparing for a job interview (“relax, be yourself, they will like you!”) and it is wonderful general career guidance especially coming from someone more successful than you (“you will get far if you just be yourself!”). While marginally soothing, it is far from precise.
Being yourself enjoys most popularity among young, unestablished, immature professions. Within the rapidly advancing fields of technology, design, and business, professional roles are constantly (re)invented and reformed. Technological advancement calls for new competence.
Many of these young professions don’t live long enough to mature. They lead a short, passionate life springing to action where a need arises. When technology, automation, trends, and shifting business life pass them, the young profession meets an early demise never reaching an established position.
Meanwhile, established professions such as those found in law, medicine, and education enjoy a radically different position. They have established university training offering their students recognized certification to practice the profession. This governing process serves to ensure the profession is only practiced by those with sufficient, at least partly defined skill set. The profession itself is protected by regulations, and established national and international associations that support their members.
The difference is also reflected in role expectations. Generally, people have more specific expectations on how a doctor, teacher, or psychologist should and should not behave. This expectation is built into our societies, debated in the media, and formalized into professional norms and ethics.
How do you expect a service designer, social media community manager, or AI consultant to behave? You expect them to be themselves… whatever it means. The professional roles and selves are fluid, flexible, and negotiable.
It is in this stage of unestablished professions where being yourself thrives. It reminds us to keep searching, pursuing, and adapting, in order to prevail in the intensive competition. It highlights passion and ambition, and frowns upon contentment.
Thus, the phrase describes and reflects the current nature of the domain it exists in. It does not mean to generally be yourself, but being yourself in the business context.
It has not always been like this
The thought of professionally being yourself is also related to our history in the West. Before industrialism, majority of people worked in agriculture. Once manufacturing took over, new professions were created. They required careful orchestration and employees differentiated in their skills. While the production process gave rise to new affluence, it required many to conform to perform function.
Production requires firm structures. The echoes of then created hierarchical organizations can still be heard in many organizations. Professional roles are clearly defined and there is little room for improvisation — unless management specifically asks people to step down from their role and “innovate”.
Today, this structure is crumbling. More and more people have become knowledge workers and problem solvers who deploy a broad range of social and cognitive skills. Their tasks can no longer be clearly defined and written down. They are constantly required to learn new skills.
World Economic Forum report in 2018 describes this imperative: “A mindset of agile learning will also be needed on the part of workers as they shift from the routines and limits of today’s jobs to new, previously unimagined futures.” Being yourself demands learning.
The radical change in our work requires new ways of organizing. One model emerging from this zeitgeist is the so-called teal organization Frederic Laloux describes in their somewhat controversial book Reinventing Organization.
Laloux proposes that teal organizations are high-functioning due to three factors. First, the employees are self-managing rather than top-led. Second, the purpose in the organization is constantly reinventing itself: their shared purpose is constantly evolving. Third, the model highlights employees “wholeness”. Instead of a professional role, the employees are encouraged to bring their passion and creativity to work.
While the model may be limited and can reasonably be criticized, it does reflect some emerging values. Work is no longer just work. Organizations expect their employees to wholly dedicate themselves to the company, and this can be psychologically challenging.
What we sometimes fail to appreciate is that a professional role can protect the employee and facilitate their work. Sometimes a lawyer, police, psychologist, and teacher, can operate professionally because they act out of a role that upholds the organizational values or government regulations. By taking on a role, they psychologically protect and distance themselves: they act out of a position, not from a personal standpoint.
Sometimes taking on these roles goes too far. While occasionally useful, they should not be taken on excessively. This may lead to a feeling of inauthenticity. It may also become difficult to negotiate a rigid professional role with one’s casual roles with family and friends. In these cases, a role becomes a burden.
It is against these restrictive positional roles the young professions rebel against. Understandably: emerging domains require adaptation. The existing roles do not work, new ways of being are called for.
Thus, being yourself also acts to counter the establishment. It represents how the future is created by the start-ups, innovators, designers, entrepreneurs — those who do not conform. Those who want to be free.
Yet, this creates an existential problem for young professionals.
The need to be free
More and more people enjoy economical prosperity. We have so many resources at our disposal that the majority of the Western civilization no longer has to pay much attention to the necessities of food, shelter, and safety. When these needs are met, our focus turns towards improving what we already have. We long for love, esteem, belonging, and self-actualization.
We need to appreciate how this self-actualization is served with a healthy dose of Western individuality. To be yourself is not only to be you, but to become empancipated, free, unrestrained, uncontrolled, uninfluenced.
This creates a fundamental problem for the thought of being yourself. Ethicist Martti Lindqvist beautifully illustrates this thought:
“After a certain point, the picture of being free changes to something very different. When there are no more shackles, but only the idea of freedom, it suddenly becomes void of meaning. It almost becomes death. Perfect freedom does not mean anything or it means perfectly that: that there is absolutely nothing. Perfect emptiness or perfect chaos are the extreme manifestations of freedom.”
Being yourself is without direction. However, the problem is not the freedom itself. The lacking guidance is.
This creates a problem many new professionals struggle with. They have all the possibilities available to them, yet they feel empty and without meaning. We have unshackled ourselves into a corner. We have to find a way out.
“To thine own self be true”
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Asking “what it is to be me” is a part of the human condition. The question is timeless and built in us. Already Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato, believed that knowing yourself was among highest personal values. This meant striving to actualize the potential each of us had. Like a seed of a tree, every human should seek to become the very best version of themselves.
The key path towards self-actualization is self-reflection. The deeper understanding one has on their needs, wants, weaknesses, tendencies, and interests the more aligned they can be with themselves. Unless one is aware of their needs and values, they risk leading a life that feels fake and inauthentic.
What is more, self-actualization may lead different people towards similar ends.
One proponent of this thought is a humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, renown for creating the hierarchy of human needs. Maslow argues that self-actualization progressively leads a person to accept themselves as well as others, and enjoying deep personal relationships. Self-actualized people are caring, spontaneous, compassionate, and autonomous.
Being yourself has the connotations of being unique. This strongly reflects our individualistic culture that is especially pronounced in the context of design, technology, and business that thrive on novelty and differentiation. Being different is associated with being successful, just ask Apple.
Creating something does require the skill and courage to combine things in a new way. However, this freedom also comes with a cost. This culture de-emphasizes and undermines the importance of culturally and socially shared goals. Everyone is left reinventing the wheel.
Stop being yourself?
Unestablished professions often cultivate a thought of being yourself. Yet, in this context it seems to mean something beyond personal.
- Being yourself means sharing the values of the business domain: its quest for novelty and requirement to constantly learn.
- Being yourself means rebellion against old, established roles — freedom from the shackles of the established, restrictive roles.
- Being yourself is a reflection of our individualistic culture and our aspiration to be unique.
Thus, being yourself is a contradiction: freedom to act but only in certain, accepted ways.
At worst, it is an employer brand creation: a catch-phrase in a job ad that attracting young talent with the promise of freedom while their keeping the underlying values and norms hidden.
Creating a culture where we can truly be ourselves does not necessarily mean being merely unique or free — as we will soon see.
Part 2: Three ways to be yourself
In the light of what we have discussed, let’s take on pragmatic glasses: how can an organization, team, and we take on a more authentic way of being.
1. Organization: Make it concrete
What it means to be yourself shifts from one organization to another, from one culture to the next. Some organizations respect colder business values, others lean towards compassion, some encourage unwavering drive, others the capability to adapt and create. What it is that a specific organization actually values?
Let’s look at one of the eight values from Blizzard Entertainment: “Every voice matters”.
“Great ideas can come from anywhere. Blizzard Entertainment is what it is today because of the voices of our players and of each member of the company. Every employee is encouraged to speak up, listen, be respectful of other opinions, and embrace criticism as just another avenue for great ideas.”
The value emphasizes equality and the importance of feedback. I don’t know the degree to which statement is theory espoused or theory in practice. However, it is something that can be measured and leaned towards. It is something that can affect decisions.
Values require honesty on two parts. Both the organization and the employee need the ability to reflect and truthfully communicate their mission, direction, and values. Only this can lead to a sustainable match between company and the talent, and allow the abstract statements to become reality.
2. Colleague: Give better feedback
“When I joined the company, I was the only one with the skills in UX. No one could give me feedback. My colleagues liked my work, but I never truly felt at ease. When years later another UX professional joined the company, I could finally spar my design with them. Feedback changed how I felt about my work, and myself. I grew more confident in my abilities.”
– A design professional interviewed for this article
History is written by victors. In an organization, those who have succeeded live to tell the tale of what being yourself means. It requires humility to understand that what worked for them in a specific time and place won’t necessarily work in another context.
We deserve better feedback. Everyone should have the right to get precise, actionable feedback. Instead of “be yourself” during a presentation, we should hear “I have noticed that you sometimes fail to make eye-contact to the audience. Making sure you face the audience and talk to them. It makes you more open and easier to listen to.” for instance.
Feedback is especially important for young professionals and those who on-board the company. For them, high level principles are simply not enough.
3. Personally: Turn your head up
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sometimes we have to question the question itself. It may be there is no definite self discover. Rather, it is co-created, contextual, and constantly growing.
In their Ted Talk, professor Herminia Iberra presents the paradox of authenticity: “what got you here, won’t get you there”.
There is a conflict between what you consider being true to yourself, and what the situation calls for.
Perhaps being yourself is more a matter of adaptation, even when our existing preconceptions prevent it.
We do not exist in bubbles where we can endlessly fall inwards for an answer on who we are. We are social creatures and constantly co-create reality. Turning our attention outward allows us to focus on our environment, each other, and our goals.
Examined life is worth living
The world of design, technology, and business is constantly on the move, reinventing itself. This calls for courage, creativity, confidence, and perseverance.
In this context, I do and do not believe in being yourself. I don’t believe we should use this existential question as general feedback and advice. Nor should it be an empty catch-phrase.
I do believe we should strive to be ourselves. The paradox is that this self is less unique than we think.
When we are true to ourselves, we will grow more similar— even if our cultures imply otherwise. While cultivating a healthy dose of self-reflection, being yourself manifests by acting outward: contributing, interacting, sharing, building, and helping.
Don’t worry. Just be yourself and you will be fine.
Discovering Original, Richard Branson, 2018. The Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum, 2018. The Hiearchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow, 1943. Teal Organization, Frederic Laloux, 2014. Auttajan Varjo (The Shadow of the Helper, not translated), Martti Lindqvist, 1990. Self-actualization, Wikipedia. Mission, Blizzard Entertainment, 2018. The Purpose of Life is Not Happiness, It’s Usefullness, Darius Foroux, 2016. The Paradox of Authenticity, Herminia Ibarra, 2018.
Photo Credits (Unsplash)