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What Does it Mean to “Be Yourself” at Work?

While we’re on the subject of bosses and engagement, let’s not forget the easiest way to engage your team: set a personal example.

Okay, if it’s so easy, then why is it so hard? I mean why do all these managers struggle to reach their people when all they need to do is model good behaviors?

One possible answer is that we simply don’t think to look in the mirror. For example, 25% of people who downloaded 22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement said they were looking to engage other people. But only a handful were looking to engage themselves.

That said, an even stronger possibility is that managers don’t know what behaviors to model. What kind of a boss is most likely to motivate his employees?

Any guesses?

The word I am looking for is: authentic.

Have you ever had a boss who was unapproachable and phony? Someone you’d rather avoid? Maybe you’d risk doing things wrong instead of asking this boss for advice. Or you’d pretend to be busy, just so he wouldn’t give you another assignment.

You may not have known it at the time, but the moment those feelings strike, you disengage from your work. And your boss may not have realized it, but he was at fault. Organizational research confirms the link between inauthentic management and disengagement. For example, a study by BlessingWhite concluded that,

“While companies focus on equipping managers with tactical skills such as delegation or matching individual talents to tasks, engagement is driven more effectively through leadership and connection skills. Particularly difficult for a manager is the challenge of authenticity—because they are typically being taught how to behave, how to ‘play a role.’ In actual fact, it’s becoming better known as a person to their direct reports—not being the person they think they ought to be—that will build the relationship needed to increase engagement.” 1

Notice too that your boss need not be an outright douche bag to occasionally give you the creeps and make you resent your job. Being a manager is not intuitive to most people, because, frankly, being human is not that intuitive. When under pressure we all tend to turn into malfunctioning robots. And any pressure a manager feels is magnified by his sense of responsibility for others and his place in the spotlight.

Yet, as BlessingWhite so wisely points out, these are precisely the worst times for the manager to put up a front. In every crisis, there is a golden opportunity to connect to people and lead from the heart, so to speak. But only if you can “be yourself,” while you are at it.

So, what does it mean to “be yourself” at work? Do we wear our hearts on our sleeves? Do we scream, curse, cry, and storm out of the room whenever we feel like it? Are these the behaviors that will help us build relationships and motivate our people to do their best?

People don’t respond to what we do, as much as to why we do it. They can smell our hidden agendas. So, here’s something to consider. What is it that keeps you from showing your feelings?

If it’s respect for your fellow human beings and concern for the welfare of your team, then by all means, heed those noble thoughts. However, if it’s fear—fear of losing face—then give it a second thought. What do you really have to lose?

Take cursing, for example. If you curse to put people down, don’t. Anger and blame are fundamentally inauthentic. We use them to cover up deeper and even less comfortable emotions. Instead, look at what’s driving your anger. But if you curse to put your people (and yourself) at ease, then why not?

It’s not necessary to act out all of your feelings in order to be yourself. It is, however, important to own your feelings and stand ready to acknowledge them. BlessingWhite’s call to be known as a person comes down to the simple but courageous act of admitting our faults. Of exposing ourselves to judgment. And that’s the reason we resist it.

Authenticity engages people simply because it makes them feel better about themselves. It releases them from self-judgment and empowers them to use their gifts to the fullest. Ultimately, engagement is not about looking up to your manager. It’s about trusting yourself.

So, here’s a paradox. To be yourself, you need to do a little work on yourself. It’s not the kind of work we like to do, because it involves overcoming our fears. Our worst fears, in fact. But isn’t that what the business of leadership is all about?

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If you like being yourself at work, then you might like my book, because it makes it less scary.

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1. BlessingWhite, The Importance of Being Known: the positive impact that managers can have by becoming better known as a person, blessingwhite.com, August 2012

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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