Can you be yourself at work?

True confession – I have never been a great employee.

I have never fit well into organizational structures, have never quietly accepted rules and politics, never accepted the “grey area” between fair and unfair, and never understood why I couldn’t just “be myself.”

The back story

Growing up with parents who were small business people I didn’t have dinner table conversations about “the boss” – my parents were the bosses, running their ventures the way they felt was right and hiring people they liked and wanted to spend their days with. And both parents ran businesses that aligned with what they personally loved (my mother had a gift shop that sold handcrafts and was an outlet for her own passion for sewing, and my father owned a bike shop and sporting goods store that was heavy on hockey equipment, like the good Canadian boy he was).

What I noticed

I saw them delight in their employees’ successes and celebrate their wins, both personal and professional, and I saw them sadly but determinedly have difficult candid conversations when things weren’t going well.

And I saw their employees grow and thrive. From the teenager at their first part-time job to the formerly incarcerated who was given an opportunity to start a new path to the parent who was sole provider for a family I saw loyalty and diversity and trust and appreciation for curiosity and challenging the status quo and the matching of potential with opportunity.

My different path - for a while

I was the first in my family to have a “corporate” job – and it never felt like it fit. None of my corporate jobs did, although I was lucky enough to spend time in a couple of organizations that I truly loved. But there always seemed to be a personal cost – a barrier to authenticity, a set of rules I didn’t understand or agree with, a lack of appreciation and respect tied to title and role. Whether it was what you could discuss with a co-worker or what you wore to work or what direction you wanted to take your career, there always seemed to be a disconnect between what I – and many of my colleagues – really felt and wanted and believed – and what the organization required in order to offer rewards and recognition.

The work-life gap

As an executive coach I’ve had thousands of conversations with people who have been trying to reconcile what they want from their life with what is expected of them at work and, to varying degrees, more often than not there has been a gap. For many of my clients there has also been a recognition that they were in a position, as a senior leader, to create change, and in many cases they’ve been able to do that. But the struggle is real. Most organizations put invisible limits on the degree to which their people feel they can be “themselves” at work.

To be clear, I don’t think that “being yourself” at work means you have a license to treat others badly, or say everything that’s on your mind at every moment. Not at all. But I constantly see people fearful of showing who they truly are when inside their organizational system. And I see leaders focused on fitting into the system rather than asking whether it could benefit from some expansion or change. And it makes me sad.

We all own an aspect of where we are

I’m also clear that change is a shared responsibility. As offered by Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements – we have to take full responsibility for our half of every relationship. Our half. Not more, not less. And make no mistake – working in an organization means you have a relationship with that entity. Which means you have a personal responsibility to set and communicate your boundaries, ask for what you need and pay attention to the impact your behaviours and choices have on others. And, in my view, the organization has a responsibility to listen to you, to communicate its expectations, and to create an environment where humans can truly thrive in order to support its ultimate success.

I am optimistic when I see organizations embracing tools like the Sparketypes – it tells me that there is some increasing interest in not only helping people see themselves more clearly but in having what might feel like difficult or at least courageous conversations about how best to ensure more people are working in alignment with what really lights them up. Small steps…but there is so much work to do. And after what we’ve all experienced this past two years, more and more people are doing deep personal reflection and making more choices based on what they need in order to live and thrive authentically. So I sincerely hope that organizations aren’t ignoring this movement. It’s not going away.

So here’s my question – how can we close the gap between what it feels like to work in an organization and what it feels like to live, work and thrive authentically? I welcome your ideas – and more to follow!