Get Rid of Your Work Persona
At the start of my career, I put a strong emphasis on professionalism. At work, I was “Work Nina.” I dressed the part, I acted the part, I lived the part. I felt that, in order to be taken seriously, I needed to portray a serious persona.
But let’s be real. In the end, what I was was fake. I acted like a robot (albeit a productive robot).
Now, don’t get me wrong, professionalism is important. I’m not talking about the fundamentals. We want to put our best foot forward in the workplace, and we want to show that we respect our environment. In different roles, different organizations, and different situations it varies, and the types of professionalism are vast. I’m talking about the heart stuff; the person we portray in the professional environment (who you are).
Fundamentals of Professionalism
In any work environment, certain things are expected (they may be on a scale depending on the culture of the organization). I encourage you to always present yourself positively when it comes to the basics. This article, on LinkedIn, does a great job of summarizing the 10 Characteristics of Professionalism.
- Appearance — “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” While casual dress has become prevalent in many organizations, that doesn’t mean we show up to work in sweat pants and a food stained hoodie. It’s important to dress for work, and not look like you just rolled out of bed, but that doesn’t have to mean a suit and tie — it can just as easily mean jeans and sneakers. I always dress 1–2 levels “fancier” than what is the norm.
- Demeanor — some combination of confidence, consideration and kindness. Treat people with respect, and have a good attitude. I make an effort to come off as friendly and approachable; but don’t take it too far-leave the “pet names” at home (I’m talking to you Beth in Customer Service who calls everyone sweetheart).
- Reliability—always show up, on-time (even a few minutes early), respond to messages promptly, and follow-through on your commitments. Nothing gets you a bad rep in the office like being flaky. We all know someone who is late for meetings (doesn’t respect others time), late on deliverables (doesn’t respect others’ needs), or who “forgets” tasks (doesn’t respect the organization), and no one takes that person seriously. Reliability isn’t hard, it’s basic respect and goes a long way.
- Competence — take pride in your skills, and focus on continuous improvement. Even if you’re the best in your organization (or even field) you will never be perfect; professionals constantly look to get better.
- Maintaining Your Poise — we’ve all faced emotionally charged situations at work. Whether it be with an unreasonable customer, or a combative peer. Professionals keep their cool, and maintain their poise even in the most difficult situations. If you feel yourself reaching a point of escalation, ask for help and/or excuse yourself from the situation. It’s ok to take a walk, catch your breath and collect yourself before coming back. It shows self-control, and respect to the person/situation.
- Phone Etiquette — speak clearly, listen intently and always identify yourself by name, where you’re calling from, and what the call is in regards to.
- Written Correspondence — in an age where written correspondence is prominent, remember that the tone behind written words can be easy to misinterpret. Keep your message concise, to the point, and be clear on the purpose (are you asking for something? Is it just information sharing?). Think about the recipient, what they need to know, and what you’re asking from them.
- Organizational Skills — your environment is reflective of your work. Keep your work space tidy, organize materials, and make sure you know where things are (that can be physical or electronic). File your emails, file your documents, keep track. A professional doesn’t have to have the answers right away, but they need to know where to find them.
- Accountability — take responsibility for your actions. Don’t play the blame game. Made a mistake? Own up to it; don’t make excuses. There are often a million justifiable reasons why something went wrong. In my experience, it doesn’t matter. Take ownership of the issue, and make sure you’re focused on preventing it from ever happening again. This instills confidence in others, and creates respect.
- Ethics — no compromise on this one. No matter what, never compromise your personal code of ethics. If you’re put into a situation where you’re expected to compromise, I encourage you to take a long hard look at your environment and ask yourself if it’s something you can be a part of. The only person you can control is yourself, so make sure you feel good about (and can stand behind) your choices 100% of the time.
Removing the Mask
If I’m not talking about the professionalism list above, what exactly am I telling you to do then? I’m talking about the person you present at work, how you engage with others, and how you respond to different situations.
Like I said before, for me professionalism meant acting like a robot (task focuses, always on point, but lacking personality and authenticity).
Over time, I’ve naturally let my guard down. I’ve peeled back the mask of professionalism that I dawned for so long, and I’ve let my authentic personality shine through. For me, this was a huge step in recognizing my own power and self worth at work. I didn’t want to be two different people. I like Nina, I’m proud of Nina — and I want everyone to know the real Nina.
One of the immediate results that I saw, was that my relationships at work started to change. I had previously kept everyone at arms length, but by showing up as a real human, people started seeing me as human. People wanted to engage more, share more, be more open. All of which is advantageous in the workplace.
We spend so much time at work, and with the people we work with. It’s a shame not to build real connections.
That said, you don’t have to be best friends. That can come with a whole host of other issues (especially if you want to take on new responsibilities, and advance into further leadership positions). At the end of the day, you never know when you’ll be forced to make a hard decision at work (like firing someone).
But that shouldn’t stop you from connecting. Humans crave connections, and authentic relationships help build trust (a key to a successful teams).
Another result that I noticed was that it was easier to have authentic conversations — both positive and negative. When I was giving someone praise, it was real and from the heart. It resonated way deeper for the recipient (because they could tell I meant it, it wasn’t just words). More importantly, I’ve been able to have more difficult conversations.
Conflict is inevitable when people come together. I spent years avoiding it, sweeping it under the rug, or battling it. The only loser in that situation was me. Now, I approach conflict from a place of humanity. In the end, job titles and other BS aside, we’re all people. So if we take to each other like people, with humility, patience, grace and kindness — it’s amazing what happens.
Realness, in this case, makes the harder conversations so much easier. You’re approaching the conflict as one person to another, instead of two opposing forces. I’ve learned to use feelings language, I don’t shy away from giving hard feedback (when it’s warranted), I give examples, but I always focus on the goal. I’m tackling this with you because I want something to change so that we can work better together.
The vulnerability that comes with authenticity shifts how conflict is perceived, and helps moves it from combative to collaborate.
In being my real self, I can be honest in my self-assessment. When you’re authentic, you’re strengths and weaknesses are way easier to identify. The benefit of that:
- You can lean into your strengths, nurture them and trust them.
- You can focus on improving your weaknesses. There is no need to fake perfection. Be realistic with yourself, and those around you, and where you need to improve. And lean into improving (learning, exploring, talking, pushing yourself).
In the end, we’re all people. We all have a complicated history, complicated emotions, and completely unique experiences that have shaped us into the person we are today. The freedom that comes with getting to be our authentic selves is tremendous, and the connections that we get to build are so worth it.
Questions for Reflection:
- Do you have a work persona? If so, what’s different?
- Why do you feel the need to have a work persona?
- What would happen if you shed the mask, and allowed yourself to be authentic in the workplace?
- When it comes to professionalism, what’s important to you?