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Should you have a 'work persona' or be authentic in the workplace?

British prime minister Boris Johnson, currently the target of his former aide Dominic Cummings who has levelled a serious of allegations against him over his conduct in the office. Photo: Toby Melville/WPA/Getty Images
British prime minister Boris Johnson, currently the target of his former aide Dominic Cummings who has levelled a serious of allegations against him over his conduct in the office. Photo: Toby Melville/WPA/Getty Images

From a young age, we’re often told that being our authentic selves is the best way to be. In reality, however, it can be easier said than done – especially at work.

While we can be ourselves in private, it’s often more difficult when we’re in a professional environment. We might not think twice about sharing a joke with a friend, but with a boss, the thought of revealing certain aspects of our personalities can be anxiety-inducing.

How much of yourself you can safely lay bare at work is often up for debate. For most people, workplace behaviour can be a tricky balancing act between being authentic and being professional. On the one hand, it’s important to be seen as someone who can be trusted to do their job properly. On the other hand, being seen as disingenuous can harm your career prospects – and make you miserable to boot.

“For some time, there has been a focus on authenticity at work, and bringing your whole self to the workplace,” says Gemma Leigh Roberts, an organisational psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge.

“Some people however find the idea of showing every part of their personality, preferences and lifestyle at work daunting, and in this case, focusing on authenticity isn’t helpful but rather overwhelming. Consider for example, would you chat to your peers or boss in a meeting the same way you would with friends over a glass of wine on a Friday night?”

Read more: Is it always unprofessional to 'lose it' at work?

Our work and personal lives often require us to adapt our behaviour to suit the social setting. We may even create a ‘work’ persona, which can put us at odds with our true selves. Although it seems like the safer option, research suggests being authentic may be the better option.

“There are a number of benefits associated with this, such as promoting psychological safety and building strong networks and connections. This is especially important as we move towards an even more inclusive workplace,” Roberts says.

First described in a 1999 academic paper by Amy Edmonson, an organisational behavioural scientist from Harvard University, psychological safety describes a climate in which speaking up is allowed and expected. In this kind of environment, people are more likely to air their ideas, thoughts and feelings without being afraid of embarrassment, rejection or punishment. This moderate risk-taking has been shown to have benefits on team performance, creativity and problem-solving.

Psychological safety is also important for embracing diversity in workplaces. The more comfortable people are being themselves, the more benefits it can reap for a business. In one US research paper, psychological safety was found to allow minority workers to “mitigate individual fears associated with identity expression, paving the way for individual performance”.

Being authentic is also good for our wellbeing too. It takes a lot of effort to maintain a persona, which can be draining. “Individuals who stray too far from their true self – for example, compromising their values, or not speaking freely about issues that matter – may struggle to feel accepted at work,” Roberts explains.

“This can impact psychological health and wellbeing negatively, causing issues such as stress and anxiety. If the person you are at work feels like an act, it can be an exhausting and overwhelming existence. Also, if the person you are at work is too distant from your true self, others may find it hard to connect with you, which can impact relationships and career opportunities.”

Read more: How to defuse tense political conversations in the workplace

However, it’s important that people bring as much of their whole selves to work as they feel comfortable with, adds Roberts.

“For some, this may be behaving and communicating in exactly the same way they do in their private life,” she says. “For others, they may have a work persona, whereby they are themselves, but they choose to show a particular part of their personality, in some cases a professional persona.

“This can be beneficial when building professional relationships with stakeholders, peers and managers, as you showcase your abilities and expertise in a professional way. Those that develop a work persona are also more likely to be able to adapt in a new role or following a promotion, rather than staying fixed in doing things the same way as before.”

Ultimately, being yourself comes with tangible benefits, but it’s possible to be genuine and show different parts of your personality.

“If you behave differently with different stakeholders, this doesn’t necessarily make you disingenuous, it could mean you’re adapting your natural communication style to suit the audience – which is a key factor in building emotional intelligence,” says Roberts.

“Being socially aware and managing relationships effectively requires an adaptable communication style. The key is to find a way to be yourself, whilst consciously showing the parts of your personality you’re comfortable with, in a way that’s appropriate and useful in different contexts.”

Watch: How to answer difficult interview questions