I See You: Bringing Our True Selves to Work

I just read an interesting article about how THE Oprah Winfrey called it quits on her 60 Minutes stint. Seems as if The Big O just wasn’t a great fit for the storied news show. Hard to imagine, since Ms. Winfrey has crushed everything from daytime talk show to movies to being an outright media mogul with her own OWN Network (pun intended).

“It was an interesting experience for me. I enjoyed working with the teams, but it was not the best format for me,” said Winfrey in a Hollywood Reporter interview. Oprah? Fail? At something TV related? How is that even possible?

“Never a good thing when I have to practice saying my name and have to be told that I have too much emotion in my name,” she continued. “I think I did seven takes on just my name because it was ‘too emotional.’ I go, ‘Is the too much emotion in the ‘Oprah’ part or the ‘Winfrey’ part?’… They would say, ‘All right, you need to flatten out your voice, there’s too much emotion in your voice.’ So I was working on pulling myself down and flattening out my personality — which, for me, is actually not such a good thing.”

In other words, Winfrey astutely assessed that what was required to be successful on 60 Minutes – a voice devoid of her natural emotion – ran counter to her personality – who she was at her core. And she made the decision to walk away rather than surrender, even for a few hours a week, who she was.

Bringing our true selves into our work spaces can be a terrifying and vulnerable thing, especially for those of us who are “other” – female, people of color, LBGTQ. But it isn’t just those folks who can feel as if they don’t belong. Introverts can feel out of place surrounded by extroverts. Less naturally assertive personalities can feel lost in a “pound the table and be heard” culture. Our otherness makes us unique, but it also makes us stand out and be noticed as different. And that often leads to the fear of being singled out and misunderstood, causing us to hide our otherness.

But the alternative of hiding one’s true selves like some shameful secret robs the workplace of the richness that real diversity brings, and is also damaging to the one doing the hiding. As Dorie Clark points out in her hbr.org article, covering or playing down differences at work can be psychologically damaging.

What to do? Bringing your true self to work is a courageous decision. It starts with honestly evaluating who your true self is, what your strongest talents are and thoughtfully considering in which environments these shine best. And then being bold enough to say “no thanks” to any spaces that don’t support and honor that. Yes, The Big O has significantly more coinage than the rest of us working folks, so it’s easy for her to walk away from opportunities that don’t feel organic and authentic. But more and more real-life folks are making the same decisions.

I recently worked with a client who was on track for a very senior finance role at a large packaging company in the next couple years. Sheila* came to me for strategy on how to best position herself over the next 12-18 months for this promotion. When assessing what she’d have to do and how she would have to lead to be successful in that senior role, we evaluated Sheila’s personality and leadership style against what was respected and rewarded within her company’s culture. While she definitely had the technical chops to succeed, the autocratic leadership style of the CFO and his directs reports stood in sharp contrast to Sheila’s warm, high energy coaching style of leading.

While Sheila’s style had been successful at her current level where she had hired and groomed most of her direct reports, her new department was currently being led by Richard, a VP who was the poster boy for the firm’s top-down, heavy handed leadership culture.  Sheila believed that, should she inherit Richard’s department, the CFO would expect rapid results in the new role and not be inclined to wait for her coaching investment to yield results.

Convinced that the leap to an executive leadership role within her current company would require too big and undesireable of a change to who she was at her core, Sheila ultimately decided to spend the next 12-18 months looking for a comparable role within a competitor company with a culture and leadership style much more akin to her own. Sheila decided against “flattening out” her personality.

Years ago when I made the switch from corporate to the non-profit sector, I focused almost exclusively on the type of mission I wanted to work in furtherance of. While I absolutely loved the work I did and the people I served, what I failed to ask was: would my talents and abilities shine and further develop in this organizational culture? While I achieved great success for the organization, I was professionally frustrated. In addition to a mission in which I wholeheartedly believed, I realized I needed fellow executive leadership that was goal-oriented, had a growth mindset, made data-informed strategic decisions and prioritized professional development. As a highly relational leader who loves to laugh, it was also hugely important I be in a relaxed work environment that put a premium on building relationships and having fun while achieving the organization’s goals. So as hard as it was to leave, I found the courage to make a switch that has rewarded me with all that and more. I now move in environments where I can go big on serving, laughing, loving, learning and earning. I don’t have to shrink to fit.

It’s been said that the Zulu people of South Africa have a traditional greeting, given in two parts. When two people meet, they look intentionally, meaningfully into each other’s eyes:
The first person says, “Sikhona”(I am here to be seen). The second person replies, “Sawubona”(I see you).

Many of us show up to our workplaces feeling unseen, unheard and under-appreciated week after week, all because we can’t bring our true selves to work. If that’s you, it’s time to stop hiding, flattening and shrinking. Take some time to assess who you really are – your personal and professional values and priorities. Decide that you deserve a workplace that honors the core of who you are. And then be bold enough to go find just that – a place that sees you.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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