How to be authentic AND progress in your career.

What does it mean to be authentic? Authenticity has become such a buzzword in personal development over the last few decades. We’ve all learned how we need to ditch the stiff-upper lip, release repressed feelings, find our values and be faithful to our inner selves. We understand that we need to be real, be true – and be authentic in what we say and do in order to live fulfilling and meaningful lives. 

But how far can authenticity translate to the workplace?  

Employers are becoming much more savvy to the idea of welcoming employees who can be their true selves. Research shows that when people feel they can be authentic at work, they are happier, less stressed and more productive. People who are being authentic are more motivated, so having less of a one-size-fits-all approach to a workforce isn’t really altruism – it actually makes good business sense – even in large corporate firms with an obvious company ‘culture’.  

So far so brilliant! 

But there’s a catch.

The trouble with authenticity is our definition of it. If we think of being authentic as being true to ourselves, and basing our actions and decisions on our inner feelings and values – we risk being trapped by our own rigid ideas of our identities. How can we progress, improve or change in our careers if we have a set definition of who we are? However embracing of different personalities a company may be, there are certain skills that all leaders, managers and senior staff are required to have. These are professionalism, authority, drive, assertiveness, confidence, responsibility, positivity, motivation, not to mention good presentation and selling skills. What do you do if your definition of your true self at age 24 is introverted and laid back? If you find networking shallow? If you feel you naturally lack authority and confidence? This definition of yourself may be fine for your 24 year old self in the junior job you have, but how do you then progress to a more senior role without defying those seemingly ‘natural’ tendencies? 

This is a phenomenon that Herminia Ibarra writing in the in the Harvard Business Review, calls the Authenticity Paradox. It’s when your authenticity, and your narrow definition of it, serves only to put up barriers against change or progression. So rather than liberating you from the tyranny of repressed feelings, your need for authenticity is constraining you. You are holding onto your self-defined identity so tightly that it leaves no room for growth. You might subconsciously be using your need for authenticity as an excuse for sticking with familiar behaviours; to give you the safety and comfort of being and doing what you already know.

So how can you progress in your career?

You need to think differently about authenticity.

Here’s how:

1. Understand your authenticity relates to your values, not your skillset.
Your personality traits or inner values are not skills – and skills can be learned, practised and perfected. Introverts can become public speakers; those who don’t like hierarchies can learn to lead and project authority. They are not mutually exclusive. Identifying our authentic selves implies introspection, but recognising and learning skills requires ‘outrospection’. Take an external perspective and learn to separate your inner feelings about your self from the practical skills you need for leadership.

2. Be fluid, not rigid in your approach to authenticity.
We all want to progress and be the best that we can be – it’s human nature to want to grow.  But to do so, you need to accept that your sense of your authentic self can change as time goes by and as you have new experiences. You need to see your authentic self as an evolving entity, not a rigid identity. Perhaps you have always been a little shy or under confident and identify your authentic self in this way – but understand that you can gain confidence by having the courage to take on challenges as you grow older. You don’t need to define yourself as under confident forever, just because you once were. If you embrace a little discomfort, make yourself do things you feel your authentic self wouldn’t do – you will gain confidence. This greater confidence then becomes part of your evolving authenticity.

3.  Challenge your narrative.
We all have our own story of who we are and what we are like – but we need to understand that this narrative has been built from our backgrounds, cultures and past experiences – it isn’t some sort of intrinsic ‘soul’. If you have limiting beliefs about your ability to lead, or be successful – examine where these might have come from – your parents perhaps, or experiences at school? Be objective, challenge the negative aspects of your story – find evidence to support you. You can’t change the narrative of your past – but you can shape the narrative of your future.

4. Find role models.
Look at successful leaders – watch what they do and how they do it. Find aspects from different people that you identify with and borrow or emulate those things to build an authentic ‘leadership’ version of you. Pick and choose, try and adapt. Find what works for you, do it and keep on doing it. Learn by repetition. If you keep being and behaving in a certain way, your brain will adapt and that will eventually become the new version of your authentic self.

5. Embrace learning.
Learning is how we grow. If we set goals for learning from the get go – rather than just for achieving, we can accept the concept of change and progression as part of our lives.  If learning and trying, failing and experimenting, adapting and growing become an integral part of us – we can stop trying to hold onto the  idea of a fixed authentic self and embrace the idea of an evolving self. 

Remember – you are who you are today, but tomorrow you are allowed to be different. That’s true authenticity.



Pop over to our Having it all Facebook group if you have any questions on this issue of the authenticity trap. And if you’re interested in my Having it all coaching programme – please email me