In my early career working in large organizations I was struck a subtle, almost not perceivable suggestion in many instances, that for you to be successful you needed to be considered professional. Being professional, in your attitude and personal style required you to leave part of ‘you’ behind at the front door – and then collect it again on your way out.
Some managers were very upfront about this. One of my first managers (I think it was her first management job too) said to me, “no matter what is happening in your personal life, don’t bring it to work. When those lift doors open, you need to be “professional”. In reality though most managers were never this up front with their words, just their actions.
I took the advice of this leader very seriously as I observed who got promoted and who did not. And as a result I spent many years trying to leave my personal life at the door, with at times, part of me. In my early career this worked a treat. I was lucky enough to be given lots of fantastic opportunities and could not help but notice that the more I wore the “professional” persona the greater my success. Further into my career, perhaps in my first leadership role, I admit I did this with greater and lesser success. I started to feel constricted. Finding it harder and harder to project the company line or image. While I loved what I did and cared greatly for the people I worked for and with – it was all starting to feel wrong. The persona was no longer enough and left me feeling vulnerable and isolated, because I was. No one actually knew me and it was of my own doing.
As a result, I was not being the person that I wanted to be, I was conflicted by what I wanted. My performance was dropping and I did not feel that I was being authentic. I was trying to climb the corporate ladder and was very ambitious, yet didn’t have the heart to play the game the way it needed to be played. I was getting feedback that I needed to be different, have fewer opinions, question less, be more like so and so. But I couldn’t do it anymore.
So there was a period of turmoil, self-deprecation and regrouping. I needed to give myself time to listen, think and reconnect to what was important to me, why and then, what that meant I needed to do. Of course it is the usual solution (touted by many, done perhaps by few), it meant accepting my shortcomings, learning how to manage them and then flex my strengths more often and in ways I hadn’t thought about doing before. Learning to use and nurture the best version of me.
Further down the track now I am a firm believer that we all have great things to contribute and bring to the table as individuals, and when we do this, not only do we feel great, but also the organizations we work for get the benefit of this through our performance. What we as individuals get is the chance to harness our strengths and use them freely, unconstrained by any thought of what we should do or not do, and we achieve great things.
This is not to say that behavioural boundaries are not important in the work place. They absolutely are. It’s just how tightly we hold them. Curiosity and growth need some freedom to evolve. When you have that, it feels great.
I don’t think that I have it right yet or that things are easier now that I have allowed some of me into the workplace. I still make mistakes, handle things poorly, get frustrated, but I feel like I am learning and growing now not despite who I am, but because of who I am, and as I achieve my goals it feels more genuine and more rewarding than I imagined.