The benefits and challenges of being your authentic self at work

Have you ever been told to “be authentic” at work?

Immediately, you picture those dinners spent laughing hysterically in the company of friends, being surrounded by family at a summer barbecue set to your favorite music, days on vacation enjoying yourself at the beach, or traveling to a new part of the world.

You think, am I supposed to bring that whole person here?

But being yourself in the office can come in many forms. Whether it’s being more (appropriately) open about your personal life, letting others see your professional struggles and successes in the spirit of vulnerability or breaking out of other self-imposed limitations, there are a myriad of ways to embrace who you really are — it’s just about picking the right way to go about doing so and being aware of where you work. 

There’s a fine line between being professional with your coworkers and leaving your personal life at home — and cutting off the things and feelings that matter to you because you’re afraid they make you less able to do your job.

It’s important to recognize that each decision comes down to balance and context, and it’s worth considering decisions of when to let your workplace guard down on a case-by-case basis.

We consulted the experts on the ins and outs of being authentic from 9 to 5 and beyond.  

Start small and keep it positive

Part of being yourself is saying what you would say in any given situation outside of work. You just have to remember what’s off-limits.

Emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf recommends you steer clear of talking about “anything going on in your life that can be viewed as negative (legal, financial, struggles you’re having with people, past criminal activity, mental illness).”

“Don’t give people anything that they can use against you if they’re so inclined,” Deutschendorf says.

While it might be tempting to never share anything about your personal life, in order to avoid things that could potentially come back to hurt you, he said clamming up isn’t a long-term solution.

“That makes for a very toxic environment. People need to know something about you to trust you…people are afraid of people who never share anything and never open up…people have a hard time trusting and building relationships with people like that,” Deutschendorf told Ladders.

In other words, you have to give to get something back— so don’t completely ice people out in an effort to protect yourself. It will most likely backfire.

Vicky Oliver, author of “Bad Bosses, Crazy Co-Workers and Other Office Idiots” says you could start cracking open the door to your personal life at work by picking the key parts of your — or your family’s — personal interests that might dovetail with those in your office.

So, for example, “if you went to a fantastic college, or went to the same school as your boss,” you might want to bring that up, or “let’s say your spouse is a member of the same golf club as your boss…that’s the type of thing you may want to tell your boss someday.”

She also recommended bringing up mutual “social connections, people you know in common,” to establish a shared bond or affinity.

Oliver emphasized that the level of detail you share very much depends on where you work. One cue to staying within appropriate boundaries is to consider what other people in your workplace share, and whether you’d be comfortable letting others know that level of information.

Only share your vulnerable stories with people you trust

William W. George, Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, Director at Goldman Sachs and author of books including “Discover Your True North,” says sharing significant moments in our lives in which we have overcome challenges shows that we are vulnerable and human and that we have also had times in our lives when we stumbled and continued on.

For example, he says, he chooses to share with his classes at HBS that his mother and fiancee passed within a year and half of one another — a series of life-changing events that forged who he is today.

He also chooses to share moments in his professional life in which he learned from his mistakes — adding that he once “lost my way” while working at the Fortune 100 company Honeywell, because he was “chasing titles instead of my purpose.”

In his book, “True North Groups,” George and co-author Doug Baker recommend creating small groups of trusted associates who will spur you to be better, share personal struggles of their own and support you when you’re struggling.

In other words, sometimes, it’s okay to let your guard down — as long as you trust the person or people you’re speaking to.

Or, as Warren Buffett says, “I believe in trusting people. Occasionally, someone will violate my trust, but on balance I am better off in continuing to trust others.”

Watch out for gossipers

One rule of thumb before you share is to ask yourself if you think you’re closer to your colleagues than you actually are.

“It’s important to notice whether your colleagues gossip about each other, or behave in other ways that are covertly competitive. If you pick up an undertone of gossip or covert competition, reel in your desire to be open and self-disclosing,” Katherine Crowley, Vice President of K Squared Enterprises, told Ladders.

Kathi Elster, President of K Squared Enterprises, recommends seeking out “a professional counselor or therapist” rather than talking to your colleagues. But if you have to talk about issues at work because you “you need extra time off” to resolve them, head straight to the human resources department or your direct manager — “never colleagues.”

While you can develop “trustworthy friendships over time” at your job, remember it’s a slow, daily process of earning trust, Crowley said.

“…Many people, especially early in their careers, are hungry for connections and friendship on the job.  As difficult as it may be, it’s wise to keep personal information outside of the office until and unless you know who can be truly trusted and who can’t,” Crowley added.

How to avoid blurring the lines between “friends” and “colleagues”

Let’s say you’re working in a small company and you get to chatting with your boss about your trip out of town with your significant other over the weekend. You’re feeling like you’re on the same page.

But then the time comes to get to work, and your boss turns into a different person.

“Some people find it difficult to switch back and forth between being ‘friends’ and being ‘colleagues,’” self-described “Millennial Workplace Expert” Lindsey Pollak tells Ladders. “It can be challenging when your boss tells you about her weekend one minute and then reprimands you for a poorly written document the next. As a leader, you want to be mindful of managing that transition. For example, I know a manager who will humorously say, ‘Okay, I’m putting on my boss hat now. Let’s talk about that report.’”

No matter how friendly you are with your colleagues, and particularly your supervisors, it’s always crucial to remain aware of the professional boundary between you. In other words, beware of getting too comfortable.

Stand up for yourself if someone uses personal information against you

When things go wrong, it can sting. But it’s possible to react with grace, no matter how hurt you feel.

There will be occasions when you share something and get a less-than-supportive response. In that case, learn from it and move on, George says.

In cases like these, “I’m gonna regret that I shared that with them,” George says, and he makes sure to “be a little more discerning and careful about” who he communicates with next time.

Steve Tappin, CEO of the executive coaching company Xinfu and host of the BBC ‘s CEO Guru series, also said if your coworker uses personal information against you, you can stand up for yourself in a professional way.

He recommends telling your colleague, “I shared that with you in good faith, I’m a bit surprised and disappointed that you judged it in that way…I would have hoped that you might have dealt with it in this way…” before telling them how you hoped their response differed.

There’s no one “right way” to be yourself at work

Life coach Tony Robbins defines being yourself as “allowing yourself to be spontaneous, instead of responding to how you think you’re supposed to be,” according to an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Just as no two people are the same, no two office settings are the same. But you can gain a lot from sharing aspects of your personal story at work — you just have to be wise about what you say and to whom you say it.

Just keep in mind that every workplace has different standards, what works for you may not work for others, and that people have varying standards when it comes to what they find appropriate, so they may not always react the way you want them to.

But letting people in by telling them about work-appropriate features of your life can help humanize you as a fellow employee, instead of alienating them by sharing nothing at all, ultimately leaving them in the cold.