Have you ever been at a work event and thought to yourself, "this isn’t really me"?
Maybe the bow-tie dress code is outside your comfort zone, or everyone’s talking about the footy at the weekend which you’re not interested in.
It’s easy to feel out of place, even if your workmates are friendly and pleasant to work with. Whether it’s your background, education, expertise or something else, you’re likely to have some points of differentiation from your coworkers.
Making an effort to fit in is often a necessity. Attending events, adhering to the dress code or participating in certain cultural quirks - these are all normal experiences in modern employment.
But is this act really necessary? Is it better for people to be truly themselves at work, instead of putting on a metaphorical mask to fit in?
How much of our real selves should we bring to the workplace?
Defining our ‘real selves’ is a philosophical rabbit-hole we could spend days diving into. Many of us are capable of putting on a false smile on a bad day when we step into the office, though, for the purpose of keeping up appearances.
The fact is, business is heavily dependent on people, emotion, culture and relationships. Navigating the working world involves some degree of deliberate social acting. And as we know from many a comedy film, keeping up a façade for a long time is exhausting, and prone to cracking at any point.
Many established businesses have inherent culture codes that are complex, unwritten and impenetrable to the outside eye. Taking part can involve the simple and fun (bringing a cake for the charity bake sale) to the harmful (working longer hours than necessary, or drinking lots at a social event when you don’t want to), and they must be navigated with tact and effort.
It's why coming home after a difficult work day is so relieving - not only can we take a bath or slob out on the sofa, but we're free from the expectations of others, and are free to be as weird as we want. (You might talk to your plants at home, but probably not the ones in the office.)
It's up to the company to decide whether such social expectations are really necessary or not. Are they worth the hassle? Or is it possible to cultivate a more relaxed culture, where dress code isn't as important, and bickering over baking responsibilities is a thing of the past?
Being able to relax at work will have a beneficial effect on wellbeing, and therefore productivity, in every level of the organisation.
Your true self isn’t on LinkedIn
We’re starting to realise more and more that our online personalities are not true to life either. Instagram influencers are routinely exposed as fakers, maintaining an ongoing illusion of perfection every day of their lives. And it's easy to be jealous of people similar to us, so seeing our friends appear successful and happy on Instagram might actually do us more harm than good, although we wouldn’t want to admit it.
One thing that rarely gets discussed is how this translates to the business world. LinkedIn is just as bad for inciting jealousy, comparison and feelings of failure. In a way, it’s worse than personal networks, because it’s built for triumphant self-marketing.
Writing in Courier Magazine (Aug 2019), Fleur Emery describes the divide between our public personas and our real selves in the business world:
“This schism has been brought further into the public conscious recently through the use of social media. Business founders are prime offenders when it comes to jazzing up their own personal dossiers for us all to marvel at.
When each day starts with two hours of hot yoga… and ends with an influencer tag-fest at an awards event recognising the importance of gender diversity in food labelling, where is the bit where the actual work happens?”
As a writer, I probably won't feel jealous seeing news of a startup CEO raising $30m in funding - it’s so faraway from my realm of experience. But I might be a bit jealous if I see he’s younger than me and from my hometown. And I’d feel even more jealous seeing a fellow writer winning an award or big contract, because it’s in the realm of possibility that I could do that, but didn’t.
LinkedIn is a great platform for doing business if you connect with your target customers, but if you only connect with people doing the same thing as you, you’ll end up comparing yourself to them and feeling inadequate. It’s unlikely the hyper-productive, award-winning people you see on LinkedIn are sharing their true selves. Just as it is on Instagram, it’s an edited reality.
Founder of The Happy Newspaper and all-around positivity superstar Emily Coxhead regularly shares reminders of the real disconnect between social and online:
Living another life
On an individual level, we all have a right to privacy. We don’t have to share everything with our colleagues.
It’s always fun to find out a coworker has a surprising private life. Maybe ‘Quiet Jeff' from HR does stand-up comedy at the weekend. Maybe Zakia from marketing likes tending to a Bonsai tree in her spare time. (And see stoic libertarian Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation, moonlighting as seductive jazz legend Duke Silver.)
We’re all entitled to keep things separate from our working lives. Not because of shame, but because it’s healthy to have a defined line where work stops and life takes over.
It’s easy to fantasise about having a job that’s so perfect we become 100% comfortable, with no need for ‘work-life’ balance. But it’s almost never going to happen. Maybe we shouldn’t just be thinking of a work / life balance, but a true self / alter-ego balance instead.
Cultivating a more relaxed company culture will ease tension and improve team cohesion. If employees can bring a little more of their ‘true selves’ to work, their wellbeing (and productivity) will gain a major boost.