If I could command every working person in America to do one thing, it would be: “Give me the rest of that doughnut.”
If I could make a second command – after I finished the doughnuts – it would be: “Please be yourself.”
It’s easy to lose sense of who you are – and become who you think you should be – in the working world. No matter how confident or nonconformist we consider ourselves, careers force us to alter our behavior, to bend our character so we fit in, to emulate others who have gained the success we want.
To a point, that’s fine and reasonable. I don’t like wearing pants, but if I wear shorts to the office I seem like a weirdo, so I let the shorts-loving aspect of my personality go because it’s prudent.
But when we lose fundamental aspects of our personalities – like acting tough when we’re innately gentle or keeping a quirky sense of humor at bay – our potential is limited. We are a less good version of ourselves.
So we should strive for authenticity but do so in a way that blends who we are with what is required to succeed at work.
“There’s real tension between authenticity and conformity,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, a Manhattan-based think tank. “How much to stand out, how much to fit in. I’m deeply aware of the value of not losing your identity, not losing what makes you unique. But you do need to do some balancing of authenticity and conformity.”
In her richly detailed new book, “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success,” Hewlett defines executive presence as a “heady combination of confidence, poise and authenticity that convinces the rest of us that we’re in the presence of someone who’s going places.”
Think about someone you know who acts in a way that clearly runs afoul of his or her character. The person is putting on airs, it’s transparent, and it’s hard to take that person seriously.
People who have executive presence inspire confidence in part because we believe in them – they speak intelligently, and they speak as themselves. While we like to think only a chosen few among us have that power, Hewlett points out that the power stems from skills anyone can learn.
“These days, it’s incredibly important to learn how to communicate effectively, and that means being concise, compelling and able to let go of what I call the props,” she said, referring to things like PowerPoint presentations, charts and handouts. “That might not be such an authentically easy thing for people to do; it doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it’s important for people to teach themselves to do it. ... Fifty-year-old engineers are having to learn how to make two-minute presentations and not drag out those 150 PowerPoint slides.”
You don’t have to do a flamboyant presentation. A smart, concise delivery that fits a more quiet personality will win people over for two reasons: A command of the facts carries gravitas; and people can sense sincerity.
Women can feel enormous pressure to conform in workplaces that remain male-dominated. African-American employees in a company with predominantly white co-workers or management can feel a need to alter their personalities at work.
Hewlett cites research her think tank did in 2012 that found 41 percent of “professionals of colors said they had felt the need to compromise their authenticity in order to conform” to executive presence standards at their company. That’s a huge loss for these individuals, and a substantial loss for the companies.
“If you have a certain range of differences around decision-making tables in all industries, you’re much more likely to have innovative ideas,” Hewlett said. “Differences really do unlock innovation and drive growth.”
Business leaders must create environments where everyone – regardless of color, gender or sexual identity – feels comfortable being themselves.