January 22, 2024

Letting Our Guards Down, Embracing Vulnerability, and Finding the Courage to Be Our Authentic Selves at Work

A short read describing how to ditch your "work persona" and embrace your authentic self at work.

Letting Our Guards Down, Embracing Vulnerability, and Finding the Courage to Be Our Authentic Selves at Work

When William was eight, he participated in an activity at the Unitarian church my wife attends with the boys on Sundays. The kids were asked to declare their intention for the coming year – a mantra of sorts. What he came up with and wrote in bold red letters on a note card was ‘BE YOURSELF’. It’s a phrase that sounds so simple yet for many of us it is anything but. This is particularly the case when we are at work. When I used to work for Staples, at corporate HQ, my wife would tease me that I was a different guy at work than at home. At work I was more reserved and serious, trying to fit in, while at home I was able to let my guard down, be silly and just relax. She had a name for the work version of me: ‘Khaki Nick’.

As an executive coach, I have worked with a lot of leaders over the years. One of the most common themes I have noticed is that many feel they need to be a certain way at work. They put on their suit of armor, which for me was a pair of khakis and a button down, and they check a part of themselves at the door. They are more guarded, not willing to share more of who they are by justifying it as being more ‘professional’. When leaders do this, it sets the expectation that this is what everyone else should do too. Like it or not, people look to leaders for cues on how to be.  The problem with this mindset is that it directly conflicts with one of the most important roles of a leader – to create an environment where others can thrive. When people feel that they are not able to be themselves, they will likely only give a fraction of what they could offer, as opposed to someone who feels encouraged to bring their whole self to the workplace.

Leaders need to model a different, more holistic way of being. They need to find the courage and vulnerability to be their authentic selves. I am not suggesting that all of a sudden leaders must open up and bear their souls to whomever is in front of them.  What I am suggesting is that leaders share more of how they are feeling about different situations or let people know when they have made mistakes.  Doing so humanizes them.  It reminds the people they lead that their leader is human too.  It sets a different tone, one that invites others to follow suit. Too many of us spend too much time and energy being guarded and shutting off a part of ourselves from the people we engage with. It’s exhausting.  Imagine if we could redirect all that time and energy to more productive pursuits by simply empowering others to be themselves. This would create an environment where not only employees, but the whole company, would thrive.