Most of us don’t want to have to do the mental gymnastics of pretending to be someone else. We want to be authentic to who we truly are. But many of us have been led to believe that showing up as our authentic selves compromises our professionalism. Well, I am here to call BS on that workplace myth! The truth is, you can be authentic and professional! This article will explore the difference between authenticity and professionalism, show how they go hand in hand, and give tips on how you can show up to work as the best you. The professional you. The authentic you.
What is authenticity?
Let’s talk about what authenticity actually is. Authenticity is showing up as your true self and owning all of who you are. Most people want to be around people who are genuine because it helps them feel a sense of safety and trust. But showing up as your authentic self isn’t always easy. It feels risky to make choices that reflect who you are and what makes you unique. Making a choice to show up as your true self puts you at risk of being rejected. Sometimes our authentic selves don’t fit with the larger culture we find ourselves in, so we try to minimize the parts of ourselves that make us unique and different. This is especially true for marginalized groups with a long history of being ostracized and abused for simply being who they are.
Authenticity requires courage, especially for those of us who don’t fit with the dominant culture.
How authenticity and DEI go hand in hand.
Since authenticity is about being true to yourself in your work and not pretending to be someone you’re not, it makes sense that it is a crucial component of a strong DEI culture. While authenticity is all about finding the courage to show up as who you are, DEI, on the other hand, is about allowing others to do the same — it’s all about common decency and respect.
I’ve said it many times diversity is all about you. This is where you get to be your authentic self. Inclusion is about everyone. It is where we allow everyone the opportunity to be to themselves. Equity is about making sure everyone has the resources they need to be their authentic selves.
You can’t have DEI without authenticity. So how do we allow people to show up as their authentic selves when we’ve been taught that authenticity threatens professionalism?
Can you be authentic AND professional?
Can you be authentic AND professional? The short answer is yes. But in order to see how, first, we have to examine who set the standard for what it means to be professional. The standard for professionalism is set by the people in power, which usually means historically, it doesn’t favor anyone who isn’t a part of the dominant culture. Professionalism was created by the cultural norms of one group of people without considering what “normal” for people with different backgrounds, beliefs, and values looked like.
So since the standard for professionalism was set by only considering the viewpoints of a few, instead of the viewpoints of many, what does it actually mean to be professional?
Professionalism is about being true to your work. It’s about doing things well and making sure you’re being a team player. It means committing to giving the best of yourself in all that you do because you are doing it in service to something bigger than yourself. It doesn’t matter how high or low authority your role is; your work makes a difference to a customer, client, or teammate. Your work is connected to something greater.
It is so much easier to connect yourself with the greater purpose of your work when you’re not spending your time, energy, and focus pretending to be someone or something you are not. Professionalism requires the authentic version of you. Because it’s impossible to make a genuine connection to anything— whether it be a person, mission, or purpose— when you start off by being fake.
How to be an authentic professional.
So how do we become authentic professionals?
The first step to being an authentic professional is to be true to yourself. This means being open, vulnerable, and genuine with colleagues. It means showing through action and connection that you are a safe space for others to be authentic. It means taking risks every now and then—especially in a world where it’s so easy for us all just stay in our comfort zones. It means challenging unhelpful and antiquated mores and norms that don’t change if no one willing to stand up and call out their ineffectiveness.
The second step is to commit to doing work that is in service to something greater than yourself. It means giving your very best because you recognize and own that the work that you do matters, no matter how insignificant your role may seem on the surface. The work you do impacts, someone, even if you never meet them. There is no choice you make that doesn’t affect someone else. So make sure the effort you put into your work matches the level of positive impact you want to have in someone’s life.
Authencity and professionalism don’t have to be in opposition to each other. Instead, they go hand in hand. When used together, they create opportunities for meaningful connection and large-scale change.