What if some high-priced corporate lawyer suddenly stood up in a meeting and started dancing on the table–would you still be able to take that person seriously? Probably not. In any professional situation, it’s important to appear competent and in control. You want to project a great image. But does that mean that our true personalities should never come out?
Various Masks, Various Tasks
We all have various masks that we put on and take off as we move through the day. We may act one way with a spouse and another with a close friend, one way at work and another at home. It’s not that we switch personae entirely, but we certainly offer different glimpses of our true selves to different people.
Most lawyers won’t break into an impromptu Macarena during a board meeting, even if they are the life of the party back home. “I’m my true self at work,” a friend recently told me, “but I set my volume at 3 or 4 instead of 7 or 8.”
It’s not that we switch personae entirely, but we certainly offer different glimpses of our true selves to different people.
According to Judi Piani, co-author of Trait Secrets: Winning Together When We DON’T Think Alike (Teric Publishing, 2000), we may not have much choice. “Your traits are your traits,” she says. “Despite our best efforts, our true selves will always show through, and any contradiction will confuse the people we work with.”
Rather than taking on a different persona at work, each of us should identify and understand our own traits. Piani suggests that, as they shine through, you take a minute to explain personality traits to co-workers. You can do this casually and with good humor–but it should be done. It may prevent or alleviate the misunderstandings that lead to discord.
A Question of Ethics
What if your co-workers or behave in a way that goes against your personal or professional code of conduct? Do you voice your objections or just keep it quiet? Oliver Smith (not his real name) faced this dilemma when he worked for a large executive recruiting agency in New York. From the beginning, the general philosophy of the company went against his grain.
“All they cared about was money,” he says. To get those all-important commissions, recruiters would often do things that made Smith uneasy. But he avoided such behavior and tried to be his true self at work. “Actually,” Smith recalls with a smile, “I was my true self, but more so. In my personal life, I am willing to take ‘no’ for an answer, but the agency trained us never to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Ironically, Smith’s allegiance to a personal code of ethics made him popular with candidates and thus very successful. After 18 months at the agency, he called it quits and took a job recruiting exclusively for one international firm. “I think my personality will come through in my new position to a greater extent,” he says, “because I can act more naturally with people.”
Honesty Is Still the Best Policy
Janet Riesel, associate director of recruiting for the Metropolitan New York Area office of Ernst & Young, manages to remain ethical in an intensely competitive profession. She agrees with Piani that honesty is the best policy.
“If there are too many differences between someone’s job persona and true self, then the person will come off as a phony,” says Riesel. “The more a person can align these personae, the happier he or she will be.”
This kind of alignment is key, according to Piani. She advises working in an environment that plays to your strengths rather than weaknesses. “The goal should be to find a place where you fit in and can approach relationships naturally. Otherwise, you expend a lot of creative energy on keeping up appearances, and this can lead to stress.”
Employers may not always be concerned about employee stress levels, but Piani believes they should be. After all, stress lowers productivity. American businesses may employ more workers than necessary, simply because people use up so much energy by behaving in a certain way.
“Imagine that we all have ten points of energy,” Piani explains. “If we are using seven points on office politics or just guarding our behavior, then we only have three left for actual work.”