Can You Really Be Authentic at Work?

The following is adapted from Naked at Work: A Leader’s Guide to Fearless Authenticity.

A young woman is the newest hire at a prestigious law firm who hasn’t yet shown her wicked sense of humor to her colleagues.

Another employee is an executive who has long separated his personal and working lives, and is now wondering whether he should engage in more small talk. 

Both people are asking themselves, “Is now the right time to show my authentic self at work?” 

You may have asked this question yourself at some point, and it’s difficult to judge the answer. Authenticity is very much in vogue, but many still worry about bringing their full self to work. 

Once your authentic self is out of the bag, there’s no going back. What if it backfires? 

As I’ll explain in this article, there are signs that the time is right to show your authentic self so you can reap the benefits of being more open and honest at work while minimizing the risk of judgment and disapproval.

What Your Colleagues Think About You

As you decide how and when to show up to work as your full authentic self, others’ judgment is a core issue. Leaders must consider whether their demonstration of authenticity supports how others see their performance or distracts from it in their current environment. 

Are board members staring at your socks rather than your slides? Do they think your hair is too long or your skirt is too short?

This isn’t fair or how it should work, but it is what it is. You may work to embrace your full authentic self, carefully evaluate when and how you show up as that self, and still come to realize that your current role isn’t one that allows for your full authentic expression. Packaging still matters.

A 2012 Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) study that defined the components of leadership presence found that after gravitas, the next two key drivers of perceived presence were communication and appearance. Communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, form 28 percent of our collective definition of presence, and appearance 15 percent.

Appearance and communication style are often rich opportunities for people to show their individuality. Geographic and cultural differences are woven all through our spoken language: when you were a kid, did you drink soda, pop, or Coke? What we wear, how we style our hair, and what we think is funny are all very personal choices.

Some of these authenticity markers showed up in the study as executive presence detractors. Black employees who wear their hair natural, women who have long, brightly colored nails, and men who wear a hairpiece all may find their individual choices distract attention from their performance and reduce the perception of their leadership presence. These are all deeply personal authentic choices—and they may work against you. 

Other people’s judgment isn’t right or fair, but it is a very real issue for leaders to consider.

Authenticity Done Right

As an example of a professional who embraced her authentic self at work to great success, let’s look at Elaine Welteroth, the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue.

In 2017, Welteroth became the youngest person ever appointed editor-in-chief and infused the publication with social consciousness. In 2012, Welteroth had been the first African American ever to hold the post of beauty and health director at a Condé Nast publication. 

In discussing her groundbreaking work with the Guardian, Welteroth said, “When you occupy space in systems that weren’t built for you, sometimes just being yourself is the radical act.” 

Not right or fair, but true. 

Welteroth understood her environment, her scope of control, and her ability to impact her organization. Your environment, role, and position in an organizational hierarchy may strongly influence when and how you choose to show your full authenticity. What might be costly for a junior employee—crying as you share your vulnerability about past mistakes, for example—might be groundbreaking for a senior leader. 

Purple and green hair might be celebrated as creative individual expression at a Silicon Valley tech startup and might be career-limiting on Wall Street. It’s all about predicting the reception of your authenticity in your workplace and deciding whether it will help or hurt you.  

The Right Time to Be Authentic

So how do you decide how and when to show up as your authentic self?

First, consider your environment. Is your workplace conservative or more progressive? What about your clients? Are you surrounded by expressions of authentic individuality or does the office look and feel more homogenous? How are people who stray from the norm received?

Second, consider your role and stakeholders. If you are a senior leader in your organization, expressing your authenticity can open the door to broad acceptance of others, both like and different from you. 

Below that level, you might consider the ramifications of expressing yourself genuinely. Does your company have others leading authentically, beacons you might follow? At what level? How are they like or different from you?

Third, consider your demographic. Are you a white man surrounded by other white men? There may be room for individuality. If you are a woman or a person of color in that same environment, the data suggests that there is less room for individuality. It’s maddening and unfair, but if you are already “other,” making yourself more so doesn’t typically support ascent to leadership ranks.

Finally, if you choose to move forward, think carefully about your motivation and your expression to ensure you’re putting your best foot forward, no matter its sock.

Authenticity at work is a paradox. There are many reasons you want to be your full self at work, for your sake and the sake of your team. But you must carefully consider the ramifications of that choice for you in your current role. Authenticity isn’t always rewarded. 

For more advice on authentic leadership, you can pick up a copy of Naked at Work: A Leader’s Guide to Fearless Authenticity.

Danessa Knaupp

Danessa Knaupp

Straight to your inbox.

The best content on the future faces of tech and startups.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


Join the Angel Sessions

Develop strategic relationships, build skills, and increase your deal flow through our global angel group and investing course.