Authenticity and vulnerability: walking the tightrope

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We all wear a mask to some extent when we go to work. We want to put forward our best selves. We put on our work uniforms (and yes, even those of us who don’t wear a formal uniform still have our “work clothes”), comb our hair, put on our makeup and show our professional faces. Being authentic at work can be daunting. What to show, what to keep for ourselves?

Say what you think

There are many ways to be authentic. One is to say what you really think instead of sticking to a company “party-line” or blindly agreeing to other’s ideas. Share your thoughts and experience, and especially your ideas for different ways to do things. Make sure you are providing productive feedback though, and not just griping. It’s worth speaking up with a different opinion if it comes with a different solution to solve the problem. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates an alternative opinion or solution being proposed. You’ll find some leaders open and others who expect their team to simply fall in line. Listen and learn who your boss is and how he or she prefers to hear opinions, thoughts and ideas.

When I have to deliver news which I know is uncomfortable, I share my own discomfort with the situation. Just because are required to do something as a manager or an employee does not mean you are comfortable with it. I have always tried to be open about what I think about things personally at the same time as I demonstrate, professionally, that I expect us to all move forward despite our discomfort. It’s a fine line to walk. As a manager, you represent decision-making authority, even if you didn’t make the decision. Showing your team compassion for the impact of the decision while taking concrete actions to implement it is not an impossible conundrum, but it is a little tricky. 

Lift the mask

Authenticity also comes from lifting up the mask a little and letting people see your personal life. Sharing stories about your favorite hobby, or about time spent with your spouse or children, your vacation, all enable people to see a personal side to you. You become more relatable to people who have something in common with you. And that’s part of how trust and relationships are built. The other part comes, of course, from delivering professionally.

Be vulnerable

Another aspect of authenticity is vulnerability. Admitting to others that you are human and capable of mistakes requires humility and vulnerability. To me, that’s a big part of vulnerability – being honest about your personal responsibility in things. Yes, I made a mistake…..and here’s how I am going to fix it. And here’s how I am going to avoid this ever happening again. Apologizing is a powerful tool, but it is much more powerful when accompanied by an action to counter the mistake.

Read the situation

I’ve gotten mixed advice over the years about admitting mistakes, or admitting that I don’t know something. Part of that is definitely from working in a Global culture. Some cultures admire the capability to admit mistakes and others are more focused on maintaining “face”. So, know who you are talking to and decide if you can “lift the mask” and show your face or whether you need to maintain the perfect professional face.

But it’s not just who you are talking to but what’s going on around you. The HBR article, The authenticity paradox, gives two examples where authenticity and vulnerability did not work out well. Admitting that you need help is one thing. Appearing like you can’t handle your job is quite another. In addition, authenticity is not an open invitation to refuse to grow in uncomfortable ways. Like everything else, there’s a time and a place for authenticity and vulnerability. Be sensitive to the context of your situation and the personalities of the people around you.

This blog was first published at Forbes.