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What is 'authentic' anyway?

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

I once worked with someone who believed that - to be successful - you had to be reserved, cool, cold even. A regular ice queen.

You see, she had seen her Director act like that and saw that she was very successful in her job. Mistakenly she thought she should be like that to be successful too. Until one day she had an argument with someone in the workplace. Turned out that under that ice queen exterior there was a boiling hot person. Someone with passion, and emotions. The same emotions she felt she was not allowed to express in the workplace. Until - of course - she did.

You see, I'm not advertising that we all should go and boil over. Get angry and have a go when we feel like it. However, there is a whole spectrum between the ice queen appearance and the fully human, warm, emotional human being underneath.

What this episode taught me was that we sometimes forget to be ourselves. That we think we ought to be a different person in the office than we are at home. That to be successful we have to leave half our personality at the door.

Which leads me to the topic of authenticity.

You can't open up a magazine without people telling us to be 'authentic' in the workplace. To be yourself.

But what is that?

  • It's not you it's your (work) culture!

First of all, I'd like to say a thing (or two) about culture. Have you ever worked in a workplace where the culture felt all 'off'? Where you felt you had to pretend to be someone else? Harder somehow? Like a person who knows it all?

Yep, I thought so. The culture of an organisation can make you acutely aware that you are not being authentic. Because you can't talk about the things that are really going on for you, at home, or in the workplace. Because you have to pretend to be all-knowing. Because you have to pretend to be someone you're not.

Before I talk about anything else therefore I'd like to just take a short detour to say 'it's not you, it's your workplace!'*

Sometimes your workplace has got issues with THEIR values. With what they say is important to them. And what is ACTUALLY important to them, as that's what's going on on a day-to-day basis in your workplace.

Sometimes it's your colleagues and management who are keeping a culture in place that doesn't fit you.

It's important to recognise this. So that you can make a conscious decision if you can live and do your best work within that culture.

  • Values

From the moment we are born we are being influenced. By our parents, by our surroundings, by our culture, by how people feel we ought to behave and be.

And this means that we step into the world of work with a set of values that are - or are not - compatible with the situation we are finding ourselves in.

Some of our values might help us be successful in the workplace. Some of our values might get crushed. Which is why it is so important to be clear on what your values are. So that you can recognise - with your eyes wide open - when you are not being authentic. Why you feel that you have to leave your personality at the door (metaphorically speaking).

Awareness of your values is the first step. Having a good look at them and understanding how your values are serving you is another altogether.

Because sometimes our values clash with other people's values. Sometimes they are in the way of getting what we want. Sometimes our values need changing for us to get on.

Remember, your values were instilled in you from a very young age. By your parents or carers. By your environment. Doesn't mean they are set in stone!

  • Emotional intelligence

I've got to talk about emotional intelligence. Because sometimes it IS us. We are emotional beings. And yes, it is good to be conscious of that, to acknowledge that, to not try to suppress that at all cost.

But the workplace is not where we can live out all our emotions. For us to be successful we need to be able to manage our emotions. To understand what our emotions are, and how best to express them. To understand other people's emotions and empathise with how they they're feeling. And to CHOOSE how to respond, not reacting in the moment.

And all that doesn't sound very - well - authentic, now does it?

Or does it?

Because if you manage your emotions. Decide how you want to react. Is this authentic?

I'd argue that - yes - that is still you. Authentically you. A professional, choosing how to respond. And that doesn't mean that you then should always decide to hide your feelings. I'd be inclined to say that is possibly not the best strategy (as you saw with the story at the beginning!).

In fact, I'd go as far as saying that deciding to show your emotions shows signs of courage, vulnerability and - yes - authentic leadership! Because if you show that something affects you, that you know what is going on for other people, that you understand and empathise with what they're going through. In other words, if you act as if you are an actual human being (which you are) then you'll be OK on the 'authenticity' scale.

The trick (I think) is to recognise if you are still that human being. If you've not been de-humanised at work. By checking what's going on underneath the surface. How you're feeling. What your values are. And how they play out in the workplace.

What do you think?

* Read Michelle P. King's book The Fix, in which it is abundantly clear that workplaces are not built to accommodate women. Even now. Don't get me started.


Tineke Tammes is an ICF credentialed Career Coach, who supports professional women in making successful transitions to careers of Freedom, Flexibility and Fulfilment! Besides that she is also a lifelong feminist, part-time portrait artist, never-only-read-one-book-at-any-time reader, and obsessive doodler. Oh, and she knows a bit about change management too.

Join her now in Pick 'n Mix - the FREE community for creative, multi-passionate women or sign up to the newsletter.

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