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Don’t shy away from your true self when you’re at work

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In business, there are often unwritten rules to which we feel compelled to conform. These can range from dress codes to the acceptance of tattoos, certain hairstyles or behaviours. I remember when I was quite new to one organisation asking whether it would be acceptable to have my hair in braided extensions; thankfully, the answer was yes.

Over time, my hairstyles have taken many forms and colours. None have impacted my ability to undertake my role effectively or had a direct effect on my career progression. However, we do mostly conform to what we deem to be acceptable codes.

How can we progress in project management and remain true to who we are?

First, it’s worth reflecting on what the most important aspects of your life are – the things that make you the whole you. For each of us, the elements of our lives and the importance we place on them will differ. Broadly speaking there are four:

  1. self;
  2. work life/career;
  3. family/home; and
  4. wider society.

As with most aspects of our lives, there is often a need to compromise. As we move through life, the importance of each of the elements will change. At times, they can be in direct conflict with each other. Visually we can think of each element as a circle. The size of each circle can vary; sometimes they’re of equal importance, and at other times we need to focus more on one than others.

For a couple of years, I had my parents living with me, both requiring support for various hospital and GP visits. During this time, I was in a role that required limited travel away from home. I was also in the position where I could adjust my working pattern around their needs. During this period, the family/home circle was larger than my work life/career circle. Once my parents returned to living independently, the family/home circle shrunk in size and the work life/career circle became larger.

This model forms part of the Leading with Values training by Stew Friedman – Wharton professor since 1984 and CEO of Total Leadership. Within the model he also explains how the overlap and space between the circles can vary depending on the stage we’re at in our lives.

What happens when we leave a part of ourselves at the door?

Another area to explore is how much of the ‘true you’ you are willing to share with those you work with, including those who can influence your career. Often, when we enter the office environment, we leave a part of the true us at the door. For some, this may be their gender, sexual orientation, a regional accent or a hidden disability. It can be anything that you think will have a negative impact on how you are perceived by others.

The danger in leaving a part of you at the door is that you’re not in a position to give your role the attention you need. You’re always going to worry that someone is going to find out about your secret, so you invest time in hiding it when that time would be better spent doing what you really want to do with your work life. Working in a way that doesn’t reflect the true you will eventually impact your mental health and wellbeing, along with your ability to build a thriving career.

You need to assess what is important to you and accept that, at different times, these will change and flex. If you need to focus on an area outside of your work life for a period of time, allow yourself to do this. Once your work life again becomes a bigger focus, you will be able to give it the dedication it deserves and others will see the results. 

Don’t shy away from being the true you. None of us is going to be liked by everyone all the time. Embrace your regional dialect. Work with those around you to make the reasonable adjustments required if you have a hidden disability. Be proud of who you are; you will then be in a position to perform at your best and a thriving career will follow. Grasp the opportunities being the unique, true you can bring.

As a 6′3″ black woman who wears heels, I have learnt to duck under doors, but not to duck away from who I am. 

Listen to more from Deborah Lewis in APM’s podcast ‘How to Thrive in Your Career as a Woman’

A version of this blog appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.


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