I had the pleasure to speak at the European Women in Technology event in Amsterdam in November, running a workshop answering the question “Can you be authentic at work?”. Here are my thoughts and findings about how women can be their true selves in the workplace.

From my experience, a lot of women ask the question of how to be authentic at work. When I was younger, I believed that being my true self at work was impossible. Everything I heard about having a career in business pointed to certain characteristics and personality traits I needed to have in the office.

The feedback I received was usually in a similar vein: don’t be so loud or passionate, tone it down, be less present, less forceful, less tenacious, then you’ll fit in.

The longer I have been in business and the more I learned building my career through trying, failing, pivoting and trying again, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that being your authentic self at work is actually a super power.

What does authentic mean?

From my perspective, you can only be authentic if you know who you truly are. What helped me clearly define who I am is knowing my core values and making all actions and decisions in connection to them.

I first encountered this advice in the work of Brené Brown. I strongly recommend getting to know her work, especially her book Dare to Lead, where she defines a step-by-step process defining your two core values.

My own core values are growth and love. So if something I am supposed to do doesn’t help me grow (meaning I am not learning, tackling something I fear, or similar) and I cannot do it from a place of kindness and understanding, I will look for an alternative that fits. Most of the time, this is not a case of ‘do’ or ‘do not’, but a case of compromise and adaptation.

Rewards of being authentically you

When I was still trying to please, fighting to create a ‘work self’ that followed all perceived rules and expectations, I was exhausted every evening. Constantly monitoring your thoughts, words and deeds, trying to ensure that they fit a certain mould that differs from your inner self is exhausting.

Being my authentic self at work enables me to focus my strength and abilities fully on the task at hand, bringing my unique perspective to the equation. This makes me more efficient and the work results are higher quality. In the same vein, feedback on something I created that is truly me is a lot easier to accept and reflect upon as I am aware of the fact that the current solution only includes my learnings and perspective.

As I am at peace with who I am, I am willing to adapt and expand my work to ensure that the end result includes as many view points as viable to make it work optimally in a diverse space. And, being myself is a lot more fun.

Pitfalls to being authentic

Most of us have co-workers that act inappropriately and justify their actions as “I can’t help it, this is who I am”. To me, this is not being authentic but being inconsiderate. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a bad day at work, but having a bad day does not mean you can spread your bad mood through the entire office.

What works well for me is clearly voicing my needs to the co-workers that need to know: “I have some private things to mull over and a few important calls today – would you mind giving me space so that I can focus on my priorities?”

Everyone has a bad day once in a while, so most people understand. An added bonus is that no one is offended, as you have made clear that your mood has nothing to do with the work environment. Generally, clearly voicing your needs according to your values helps your co-workers understand how to work best with you, be that in general or situation-based.

Sonna’s recommendations

  • Core values: take the time to define your two core values (Brené Brown’s great workcan help with that and explain why you only need two)
  • BRAVING: Brené Brown has created this acronym in Dare to Lead to help us be more authentic and to effectively reflect our work behaviour (Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Non-judgement and Generosity – find out more here)
  • Clearly communicate your needs: in German there is a saying “You can help people that communicate”. So voice your needs grounded in your values. The results may surprise you.
  • Meditation: I sit every day (I hold myself accountable via the Headspace app; should you want to dive deeper, I love the work of the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön on meditation and self-development)