Finding Your Authentic Self in the Workplace

In college, I interned with a local health insurance company. When I was getting ready to complete my internship, a professional mentor of mine, who also happened to be another Woman of Color, offered me some advice on how to succeed in “corporate America.” She told me, “You need to get rid of your natural hair to survive.”

It was the mid-2000’s, during a period of time when Black women were reconnecting to their roots and cutting off their chemically processed (and highly damaged) hair. It was a moment of pride and self-assurance, but the words of my colleague were the first of many reminders that I could not join this movement and bring my authentic self to the workplace. Not my authentic personality, not my authentic clothes and most certainly not my authentic looks.

So began my experience with code-switching in my professional career.

Code-switching is the phenomenon of switching linguistics, looks, interests, etc. to better fit in with your audience. A little bit of code-switching has its merits. For example, switching from casual to professional language for client-facing discussions.

It becomes troublesome, though, when it is used to either hide authentic thoughts or switch vernacular to mirror those deemed to be in power. I hate to admit this, but I previously used a higher-pitched voice to seem less threatening when I worked in a male-dominated accounting firm. I also leveraged the adage “play small to get ahead”: a never-ending game of hiding my knowledge or characteristics to placate those in power. I also would switch my looks and wear lace wigs to appear more approachable to my peers. All of those scenarios infringed upon my ability to come to work as my authentic self vs. a mirrored image of what I was told would make me fit in and get ahead.

After a decade, I decided that enough was enough. It suddenly dawned on me that I neglected to realize the silent costs of code-switching — the lack of authenticity and missed opportunities.

Code-switching my vernacular cost me opportunities by taking up time I could have spent expressing my opinions with the effort of converting my thoughts to ones I thought would be more pleasant to others. In doing this, I lost a meaningful opportunity to contribute.

Today, when I come to work, I dress no differently than I would on an average Saturday, I speak in terms that (respectfully) reflect my vernacular at home and I no longer have any desire to increase my pitch for the sake of being deemed more ‘likable.’

When I came to HubSpot, I was amazed by the trust placed in me regardless of my lack of code-switching. It helps that HubSpot encourages me to be my authentic self, so code-switching is a thing of the past. If I am successful, it’s because of my skills, not a facade. It was clear in my interviews and through insight from professional peers that I could be myself at HubSpot. I came in as my authentic self, I spoke my mind and was heard.

I should note that code-switching is also absolutely exhausting and robs employees of the opportunity to do their best work or be comfortable in the workplace. It goes against the “belonging” aspect of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

It begins to feel like running a race with an anchor at the heel — it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up and damn near impossible to get ahead.

Barring professional decorum, your vernacular or looks should have a limited impact on your ability to do the work. Save yourself the stress and missed opportunities by speaking up in uncomfortable spaces and having confidence in your capabilities. Looking back, the benefits of my decision to stop “switching” are clear. I’m able to build genuine relationships with my team, I’m more content at work, and I no longer play small to placate others.

If you are too afraid to be your authentic self, take time to assess what is making you hold back… is it your team or environment? Is it historical conditioning?

Here are some strategies that have worked for me in the past:

Find an ally:

Reach out to those that you admire and could have some meaningful insights on authenticity. Try to build an internal and external network. I personally found joining the e-board of the National Society of Black Engineers has been great for networking and gaining more confidence to speak up and lead.

Check out empowering podcasts and reading materials:

 I found that “The Memo” by Minda Hart is a great resource for learning how to navigate corporate America. Additionally, here is a list of the podcasts that I found useful in the past.

Strike a power pose: 

Feeling nervous? The power pose is a quick hack for changing your mindset and gaining confidence in a pinch. As noted by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, “our bodies can change our minds, our minds can change our behaviors and our behaviors can change our outcomes.”

Build confidence: 

Someone taught me the trick of writing my thoughts before my meeting to better prepare or making it a point to speak up every time my boss spoke up. The latter was exhausting but gave me the confidence I needed over time to speak up and make an impact.

As a manager, asking your employees the questions, “do you feel like you can be your authentic self at work?” or “how can I support you?” can be a great conduit for assuring your team that they are valued. It’s not something that changes overnight, but assuring employees that they can be themselves can help build trust and reduce the anxiety associated with the transition.

In conclusion, regardless of your reason for holding back or code-switching, please know that your contributions to the workplace are valid. The great thing about diversity is we all come from different backgrounds and have unique insights on processes, all of which make our business stronger. I’m sure that you will quickly find that being authentic will allow you to grow both personally and professionally. So regardless of your role, I implore you to be yourself, do your best work and become an ally for someone on your team.

So how will you move closer to being your authentic self today?

Originally posted here.

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Michael Berhane, Founder of POCIT
Marilyn Louis
Marilyn Louis
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