It was 2008, and I had taken a train to Bournemouth, on the South coast of the UK. I had worked only in Reading before, so it was my first visit to Bournemouth. At the interview I had scheduled there, I met Robert. I loved the way he asked me questions – he was looking for what I knew, and I felt very comfortable explaining myself and my professional experience to him. I could be myself, because someone wanted to really know what I knew, whereas sadly, most of my interviews before that had focused a lot on what I didn’t know.
To be able to be yourself is something which might sound very simple, but in reality, not many people are able to do that. It’s almost like people wear this mask in front of others, and I’ve seen many colleagues of mine wear that mask for a very long time, feeling like the more fake they are, the better they look. In reality, the more you act against your true self, the more you need to work on it.
Sometimes I feel many organisations have this pressure to have people behave in a certain way. The employees don’t understand the need or the culture of the company, they just prefer wearing the mask, and behaving in a way which the company likes, and they become fine doing that for years and years. Some even feel as long as they are getting promoted gradually and get a good financial hike, they are fine with the mask.
I remember moving into a house back in Bournemouth with 2 amazing housemates to share with. It was a great place, but I was scared of being new to the place, and not knowing the culture of the place, so my first reaction to everything was defensive. The UK taught me to say thank you and sorry for anything and everything. Don’t get me wrong, I used to do that before too, but they do it for every small thing, and this habit made me apologise even if I wasn’t doing something wrong. Comparing this to a company, many people feel that being their true self is risky, they feel if they get their true self out, people might not like them, or people might feel they don’t need to respect them. I’ve heard this from many friends, that often they fear the real them coming out and spoiling the whole relationship status in office.
How often have you seen a meeting room with 8-10 people talking about emotions? You’ll see people talking about something good or bad from electronics to politics, but they don’t talk about emotions, because people feel scared of showing them to their office. I remember a guy once told me he wanted to cry, but can’t because people will think he’s a girl (kind of a sick convention that only girls cry – hate this), He was really upset with the way his manager behaved with him, but was reluctant to either tell him or go to HR. He finally quit the company after suffering for about 2 years. On his last day, I was shocked to see him say thanks to his boss, and when I asked him, he told it’s a small world and they could meet again.
Some people I worked with were very different, they would crack the odd joke, really feel their true self in office, speak what they want to – and really do what they believed in. I feel at times, these people really are very passionate about what they do, and often are very successful. Sometimes to be scared is good, but ensuring you bring your true self to the picture often helps.
It took me a long, long time to realise that we are not meant to be perfect; WE’RE MEANT TO BE WHOLE – Jane Fonda
I was in GE for 7 years, and often when leaders came to speak, I saw a lot of storytelling. Those stories were not only about ones about success and superheroes. They believed in sharing a lot of failures, and the way they told it, it really made you connect well to the story. Yes, they were very senior in their roles (VP, Director, CXO’s) – but even at that level, being your true self is a big thing. How often have you heard a VP come to a stage and say well I failed in xyz? You don’t, or it’s rare, and that’s what made me happy to hear stories in GE. I felt those people really had learnt the lesson of wholeness and were very vulnerable in front of people. It was not always failure stories, there were good/great ones too, but sometimes we all need to face the big fact of life – we all learn the most when we fail.
In a similar manner, I also saw people bringing personal items to their workspaces. Some people having family photos at their desk makes them feel good and ensures they don’t have to keep that mask on. I was big Friends fan, so I had a photo with my friends in a coffee shop, and often people talking about it made me open and happy.
I think this whole thing also ties to the psychological safety of a team. If people don’t feel safe, they can never speak up or be open or true to themselves. It’s the duty of team members to ensure everyone feels safe to speak up and point out anything and everything.
Another aspect which ties in is being vulnerable when speaking to your team. I’ve always seen that we as leaders are often telling success stories where we were amazing, but fewer people like to accept and share their failures in public. They might have learned the most during those failures in life, but they don’t take pride in speaking about them. Being vulnerable for a leader is a very important attribute where people start seeing them as normal human beings, and not superheroes, and then the team feels safe to speak up and share their own opinions, even if they are the wrong ideas. Often the wrong ideas lead to the right ones, and every thought should be taken as an opportunity to learn and grow from there.
I will end this by telling people to think how easy it would be for you to work if you have the real you out front, and you realise you might have strength and also some weakness, but you learn to live with it, but always make sure you don’t wear a mask, and get your true self to your workplace. Because at the end of the day, YOU ARE SPECIAL.