Rex Huppke's I Just Work Here: Conformity vs. authenticity in the office
IF I COULD command every working person in America to do one thing, it would be: “Give me the rest of that doughnut.”
If I could make a second command — after I finished the doughnuts — it would be: “Please be yourself.”
It’s easy to lose sense of who you are — and become who you think you should be — in the working world. No matter how confident or nonconformist we consider ourselves, careers force us to alter our behavior, to bend our character so we fit in, to emulate others who have gained the success we want.
To a point, that’s fine and reasonable. I don’t like wearing pants, but if I wear shorts to the office I seem like a weirdo, so I let the shorts-loving aspect of my personality go because it’s prudent.
But when we lose fundamental aspects of our personalities — like acting tough when we’re innately gentle or keeping a quirky sense of humor at bay — our potential is limited. We are a less good version of ourselves.
So we should strive for authenticity but do so in a way that blends who we are with what is required to succeed at work.
“There’s real tension between authenticity and conformity,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, a Manhattan-based think tank. “How much to stand out, how much to fit in. I’m deeply aware of the value of not losing your identity, not losing what makes you unique. But you do need to do some balancing of authenticity and conformity.”
In her richly detailed new book, “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success,” Hewlett defines executive presence as a “heady combination of confidence, poise and authenticity that convinces the rest of us that we’re in the presence of someone who’s going places.”
Think about someone you know who acts in a way that clearly runs afoul of his or her character. The person is putting on airs, it’s transparent, and it’s hard to take that person seriously.
People who have executive presence inspire confidence in part because we believe in them — they speak intelligently, and they speak as themselves. While we like to think only a chosen few among us have that power, Hewlett points out that the power stems from skills anyone can learn.
“These days, it’s incredibly important to learn how to communicate effectively, and that means being concise, compelling and able to let go of what I call the props,” she said, referring to things like PowerPoint presentations, charts and handouts. “That might not be such an authentically easy thing for people to do; it doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it’s important for people to teach themselves to do it. This is a very crowded world in terms of the onslaught of information and ideas. Fifty-year-old engineers are having to learn how to make two-minute presentations and not drag out those 150 PowerPoint slides.”
That’s where some of the internal negotiating comes in to play. Maybe you’re shy. But communication is critical now, so you have to work on that part of yourself.
At the same time, you’re not altering the core of your personality. You don’t have to do a flamboyant presentation. A smart, concise delivery that fits a more quiet personality will win people over for two reasons: A command of the facts carries gravitas; and people can sense sincerity.
Unfortunately, the struggle for authenticity usually involves more than one’s comfort level with a conference-room presentation.
Women can feel enormous pressure to conform in workplaces that remain male-dominated. African-American employees in a company with predominantly white co-workers or management can feel a need to alter their personalities at work.
In her book, Hewlett cites research her think tank did in 2012 that found 41 percent of “professionals of colors said they had felt the need to compromise their authenticity in order to conform” to executive presence standards at their company. That’s a huge loss for these individuals, and a substantial loss for the companies.
“If you have a certain range of differences around decision-making tables in all industries, you’re much more likely to have innovative ideas,” Hewlett said. “Differences really do unlock innovation and drive growth. I’m a huge believer in that.”
Business leaders should be believers as well, and they must create environments where everyone — regardless of color, gender or sexual identity — feels comfortable being themselves. For individuals, Hewlett said one of the key steps you can take on the tightrope between conformity and authenticity is to decide what is negotiable and what is not.
She writes, “don’t compromise your authenticity to such an extent that it puts your soul in play. It will make you miserable and will also backfire, because in the end gravitas rests centrally on your true identity.”
We all have executive presence in us. And the truer we stay to ourselves, the easier it is for others to see it.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.