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Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
Finding Meaning Through the Many Windows of Wellness

Can You Truly Be Yourself At Work?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 24th 2014

Imagine that you're in a meeting room with several co-workers. Before the meeting begins, people are sharing what they did over the weekend. Because it's seen as hip to go out on the weekends and network with other professionals, many of your peers talk about happy hours and fundraising events they attended, with ample name-dropping. Finally, someone asks you how your spent your weekend. You stammer for a response, because you aren't into those kinds of activities. Instead, you spent Friday night baking bread, Saturday working in your garden, and Sunday at church. But how do you be truthful and risk not fitting in with the company culture?

happy business peopleDoes this sound familiar? If so, you're not alone. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success," the struggle between conformity and authenticity in the workplace is a major stressor for employees.

Part of this struggle has to do with our basic human desire to fit in. But it also has to do with corporate survival. If we see someone at work who is wildly successful, we're told to emulate that person's powerful qualities. But what if that's simply not us?

Sometimes, failing to fit in is an occupational hazard. It might lead to being passed over for a promotion or a raise. A person who doesn't toe the company line might not get invited to participate in important projects that can lead to advancement.

Hewlett's research shows that women and people of color face more challenges than their counterparts in navigating this balance. In fact, one of her studies found that over 40 percent of professionals of color felt the need to compromise their true selves in order to conform to company standards.

I find this sad and disturbing. Moreover, stifling employees' true natures is a real loss to these companies.

Keep in mind that being authentic doesn't mean we should do whatever we want. It's important to be professional and courteous at work; just because you don't like to wear pants around your house doesn't mean you should show your authenticity by not wearing pants at the office. But when we find ourselves second-guessing ourselves and how we "should" respond in situations out of fear that we'll be outcast, there's a problem.

So don't be intimidating when your true nature is gentler than that. Don't hide your goofy sense of humor, because your creativity and energy will probably suffer too. There has to be a balance between being our authentic selves and being what we need to be in order to make our career situation a win-win for everyone involved. It may not be easy, but I believe we can improve our skills and adjust to corporate requirements in such a way that our core personality and values remain intact.

Do you agree?


Hewlett, S. A. (2014). Executive presence: The missing link between merit and success. Harper Business: New York.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

It’s a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

toxic work environment - ER NURSE - Jul 1st 2014

I work as an emergency nurse in one of the busiest hospitals in Canada. The staff in ER is very close knitted and I am only new years new in the nursing field and a young nurse (25). I took a position in the ER as I love fast paced nursing and I'm good at what I do.

However the most uncomfortable part of my day is when the nurses create a circle to chat. I don't belong in their circle, they know eachother and I feel like a complete outsider. And they make sure they know I'm not part of their crew. It bothers me so much some times that I want to call in sick and I have anxiety going in to work. I try whatever I can to avoid [above and beyond patient care] to stay away from the nursing chat time. Then they are quick to point out and say stop being an over achiever or stop trying to look busy. It just feels so toxic. :(

Totally agree. - JR - Jun 27th 2014

A bit late for me, though.  As a very reserved person, I was never into the "strategic" spoofing, golfing, faux conformity, lying et cetera that has come to constitute a large part of my organisations "change" culture without, however, leaving behind the hierarchical, unforgiving, unimaginative "real" culture of the organisation.  The consequences of this, at least partial, was considerable mental health and addiction problems.  While I am over these (although I still take medication for depression and anxiety) and perfectly fit to work, I now find myself in what can only be described as internal exile.  I am paid - but I have no work, and nobody will give me any meaningful work in spite of my requests for it.  In fact, I am caught in a process of "soul management", wherein I am left to molder while my superiors and supine "Human Resources" department wait for me to retire prematurely under the strain.  This, actually, is a long-established technique, embedded in the organisational culture.  And culture trumps Strategy any time.

Anything that can help young executives, administrators and organisational "experts" from drifting into a situation even half as bad as mine has my vote.  Very best regards, JR.

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