How Can I Be My Authentic Self in the Workplace?

On gender and race, and being who you really are

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Q: I’ve been a token hire for most of my career. Sadly, the folks I’ve worked with haven’t seen the value-add that my onlyness brought — they were more focused on fitting me in, while I was more focused on not failing into the negative stereotypes associated with my race and gender. How do I show up and effect change without being retaliated against?

A: I feel you.

And so do a lot of other people. I think of the actress Gabrielle Union who was hired by America’s Got Talent only to be told her hairstyles were “too black.” I think of women technical leaders at Google as they read the now-famous Damore manifesto which used false data to assert women were genetically incapable of mastering tech.

These people, they add up. Demographically speaking, in America, women represent 52% of society, black people, 12.7%. Which is not to say that all women or all black people feel like you do. But we can put our thumb up to match demographic data to those who get tokenized, to approximate how many people feel like you. And… it’s a lot.

And that’s the point. You’re not alone. Even though in that corporate room, it feels like you are isolated. It’s like in the latest (actually, all) Star Wars films where people are thinking of giving up because they think there’s too few of the good guys and so darn many of the bad guys. “They win by making you think you’re alone.”

To make you feel all alone will cause you to conform, to lose that sense of true north, and to hide your authenticity. (Before we get any further, it’s important to pause here to define authenticity. One definition, according to Merriam Webster, is that authenticity is “worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact.” Their second definition is much the same. It takes until the third definition to see it is “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.’’) And therein lies the tension. Who gets to define if it is “worthy,” them or you? Who gets to define merit, them or you? All of which gets to the question I recently wrote about: How do you even measure worth?

The following is well-known data, across social psychology and sociology and so on: If you’re “the only one” maybe even “the token,” like the only woman leader or the first black engineer in an organization, then the research shows you’ll experience three things:

  1. You’ll feel watched, so you’re super self-conscious. Not great for being creative.
  2. You’re excluded from social settings, where lots of work happens, so basically you can’t do your best work.
  3. You’ll feel tremendous pressure to assimilate to group norms.

It’s that last thing — that pressure to assimilate — that made me think of the Star Wars quote. “They win” by having you in the room, but in such a way that the room never changes. They get to talk about diversity, but not listen to or implement diverse ideas. It’s falsely signaling how much they value progress, while actually buttressing the status quo to keep things the same.

That’s why the “authentic” thing bothers me. Because it is proclaimed by leaders, but doesn’t get applied equally. The request for authenticity is too often used as decorative rather than substantive shifts, as Gabrielle Union can likely attest. You cannot talk about realness or originality without addressing bias. Yet far too many people do. This benefits those with existing power, not the rest of us. I could cite Herminia Ibarra, the leadership and identity professor, to state that no one, regardless of race, can or truly should bring their whole messy selves to work. Authenticity is a paradox, she would say. And I will add that the issue is far more nuanced and complex for women of color.

The question is… can you find a way to not be the lonely only at work?

Maybe it’s by joining an affinity group. Your organization likely has a women’s network or black association. These can be places (or private group email lists, like where you can share what is happening to you, and find people who get it, and you. When they write, “nah, you’re not crazy, that happened to me, too” you feel far less lonely. These affinity groups can be the outpost you can retreat to, a place where you can express what you’re facing, bandage up the hurt, so you can get back to work.

You cannot talk about realness or originality without addressing bias.

Maybe it’s a vocational association. When I was CEO of a boutique strategy firm, I found a lot of support with a group called Vistage. Several of those folks (Hey Craig! Hey Glen!) are now dear friends, but it started with them listening hard to my worries and me to theirs, and over time, we came to have each others’ backs. They became my personal board of advisors. I haven’t been, but I hear that (woman of color) Tiffany Dufu’s “The Cru” effort is similarly designed.

Maybe it’s forming a band of contemporaries, people you simply resonate with. I read with envy how women who worked in the Obama White House found a way to help each other in meetings to advance each others’ ideas. I also highly recommend Kelly Hoey’s book, where she breaks down how to build your own dream network.

Tribe, cru, community, network — whatever you call it, you can find it at work.

And you need to in order to do your best work. In The Power of Onlyness, I decoded how that story can unfold. One guy, Alex Hillman, was thinking of leaving his city, even though that wasn’t an easy choice. All because he, like you (despite being a white, cis guy), had looked and looked and thought, “my people are not here.” But then he gave it one more shot. And in that shot, he showed up not as he had — not in the suits of his corporate-type gig — but with ironic T-shirts and flannel with his sleeves rolled up so his tats were visible. And one by one he found his people. (His story is in The Power of Onlyness and excerpted on the TED site).

We all think we’re alone until we show up as ourselves.

But — and this is crucial to your future sanity — you are not doing it and hoping to change the opinions of those people who currently see you as a black woman, a token on their team. Those that see the silhouette of you aren’t even trying to see the real you, the self that is you.

You are doing it because when we signal who we are, those people seeking that exact thing can find you. Showing up as yourself to honor what is true for you lets you know to whom you belong. So you can say “I lead a life that is true to me.” As I wrote in The Power of Onlyness, the first step to finding people like yourself is to show up as yourself.

This is the incredibly complex challenge of being.

And, in fact, it takes a while to discover what is real to oneself. I know that I have a lot of masks that I wear, and am very adept and fluid at selecting just the right one for any occasion. For corporate-type meetings versus writerly ones. For women’s gatherings versus women of color gatherings. Even my lipsticked work mask versus washed, clean face family one. I have learned chameleon-like skills which seems amazing in a certain way, but also not so much. When I use those skills to blend into any background, I am no longer being fully myself. If I do it enough and without consciousness, I no longer remember my real face, my real values, my real voice. These issues of realness and worthiness and identity are a life’s journey.

Your question was a good starting point for this journey: Can I be authentic here when people view me as a token? And I answer, yes, of course. But, also, can you do both? You might very well “be authentic,” your “self,” and they can still view you by your silhouette. This could mean you will be punished, receive backlash, or, like Union, get fired. But this is the risk you have to take. Because they could just as well accept you, and include you in a way that lets your voice add that divergent idea that only you have. Is this a dilemma? Yes. And an awful one at that. But that’s the real deal, we each have to find our own path to be ourselves, to claim our onlyness.

As you find your people, you find your power.

And, before I end, please don’t think that what I am saying is “be your own soul mate,” or, “you be you.” While I love the message of Lizzo and you can find me singing that song as off-key as anyone else, it is just… an incomplete message. And that’s why I am not asking you to show grit, or be braver, or whatever. I’m definitely not asking you to do it all alone.

I used to think this effort of being fully oneself at work was about getting over debilitating fear. I was wrong, as is everyone else who is selling the idea of “defy the stereotype.” What I am saying after seven years of research and nearly 300 case studies is… find your people. Because, you and yours are interlinked.

Your power is found in claiming whom you are for. As you claim what matters, you find your people. As you find your people, you find your power. You never need to feel alone again. But this is not because you have done it by yourself; it’s because you have decided how to be linked, interwoven, interdependent in the world.

Because as you belong, you can become more of who you are.

And true-to-yourself-one, let me end with this: You are not a token. You are needed and necessary, worthy and valuable. When we accept the labels and identities that “they” use rather than ones that are true and reflect our worth as we define it, is when we can be reduced by them. Remember that “they win” by how we understand the situation.

So tokenism, that’s done with.

This piece originally appeared on Marker by Medium.

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