Acting on the job: Being yourself at work while still being professional

 “I feel like everyone feels like they have to act. I feel like I have to be… this hugely professional person that doesn’t get anything wrong, that knows everything, but actually it’s not and it’s accepting who you are and accepting that you’re only human.” – Jane, chartered accountant

Identity plays a central role in both our personal and professional lives. It determines how we see ourselves within our social environment and helps us to instill meaning into our experiences and find a connection with other people. 

The trouble is when the various spheres in our lives all demand different parts of our personality – often leading to multiple, conflicting identities. For example, we may feel we have to act a certain way at work to appear ‘professional’. In our attempt to present ourselves as competent and experienced, we create a tension between what we perceive to be our ‘authentic self’ and our ‘professional self’. In this scenario, we may find it difficult to navigate the workspace in a way that feels natural, leaving us feeling misunderstood and misrepresented. 

Learning how to establish and maintain an identity within the workplace that feels authentic to us is a core tenant of our overall wellbeing. According to research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, bringing your full self to work can lead to greater levels of happiness and productivity. Another study found that the greater employees’ feelings of authenticity are, the greater their job satisfaction, engagement and self-reported performance. 

But how do we learn to take off our work armour and bring our full selves to the workplace, while still maintaining a level of professionalism? How do we successfully navigate the company hierarchy and workplace politics, build professional relationships with clients, and create a sense of authority and leadership, all without losing a bit of ourselves in the process? In this article, Kelly Feehan, Services Director at CABA, shares her top 4 tips.

Authenticity within the accountancy profession

Bringing your full self to work in an industry as traditional as accountancy can be challenging. Research by the University of Leicester on behalf of CABA found that a large number of participants, particularly those from older generations, still view accountancy as a profession where people tend to be independent, capable of looking after themselves and infallible. This suggests that there is still very much a sense of ‘putting on a brave face’ within the profession, an attitude that makes very little room for honesty and vulnerability. This was evident when respondents were asked whether, or not, they would seek help when it came to their wellbeing, with almost 70% saying that they would be reluctant. 

What’s striking, though, is that almost the exact same number of people agreed that employees should be more honest about their problems and failures. This suggests that accountants are aware of the importance of communicating their needs and asking for help, but find it difficult to let their mask down, possibly because they fear the perceived repercussions it might have on their reputation and career progression. It seems accountants still struggle when it comes to being vulnerable, and this may be preventing them from finding happiness or reaching their full potential in the workplace.

The traditionally prevailing ethos of stoicism at all times is slowly starting to change, however – particularly as an increasing number of millennials and Gen Zs enter the workforce. With modern accountants, being ‘human’ – as was expressed by Jane in the epigraph – takes priority over being an accountant, so much so that an individual might not even think of him- or herself as an accountant. 

So how do we bring that human touch to our work?

Know your values 

Values are beliefs and ideas that are important to you. You could say they’re what you stand for. They inform your decisions and the actions you take, the language you use, and can help you to resolve dilemmas and problems.

Understanding your values and those of your colleagues can lead to greater co-operation, communication and understanding. That’s because it can help you and the people you work with be aware of what makes each other tick.

By listing your values and sticking to them, you can maintain a sense of self, even when put in a foreign or particularly challenging situation, helping you to navigate these difficulties with integrity and humility. 

Be more vulnerable

Authentic leaders are aware of both their strengths and their limitations. 

This statement actually applies to workers at all levels of seniority, and is crucial in creating cultures of trust, engagement and respect. 

Being vulnerable is the ability to show people you’re not perfect, you make mistakes, and you don’t have all the answers. This might be asking your boss for help when you’re stuck on a piece of work, or letting your team know that you’re overwhelmed with your to-do list. 

Vulnerability is a huge asset in the workplace. Not only does it take much of the pressure off your shoulders, leading to better mental health, it allows you to connect with your colleagues and clients on a deeper level. Vulnerability also opens up the path to better communication, which, in turn, results in smarter working and happier employees. 

By leaning into your vulnerability and encouraging other to do the same, you can help to cultivate an environment that encourages everyone to be themselves, leaving the armour at home. 

Set boundaries

Understanding where your boundaries lie and communicating these clearly can help you to form healthy relationships at work with your colleagues, managers and clients. Setting boundaries allows us to show others how we want to be treated and what we are prepared to put up with. For example, learning how and when to say no can be the difference between professional fulfillment or burnout.

Strong boundaries also enable us to separate our thoughts and feelings from those of others, helping us to stay true to ourselves in every situation the working day might throw at us. Weak and emotional boundaries, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on our career and wellbeing. This might manifest itself as being easily hurt by constructive feedback from our peers or being demoralised by a toxic workplace culture.

Learn how to be assertive without being aggressive 

Learning how to be assertive in the workplace is a crucial skill to master no matter how junior you might be. A lack of confidence or self-awareness in this area can lead to uncomfortable situations, often resulting in us retreating into our self-made boxes. 

Learning how to get this mix right can be tricky but it’s important to take the time to get it right. Using the right amount of assertiveness can help you to communicate honestly and clearly; whereas if you’re not assertive enough you may be afraid to speak up. But if on the other hand you’re too assertive, others may not appreciate the way you interrupt and talk over them. 

Be clear, make eye contact, maintain a positive posture and avoid pointing the finger at anyone. Once you’ve got the basic components down, you should find you are able to articulate your needs better in the workplace without the potentially negative implications

By Kelly Feehan, services director at CABA

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