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Mask ON – Figuratively Speaking

I have always loved dressing up for Halloween. The freedom born from wearing a mask, and slipping into another character, for even just a few hours, can be exhilarating.

Pretending to be someone you are not, for extended periods of time, can be exhausting.

In recent years there has been conversation and debate about bringing our authentic selves to work. How authentic should I really be? On the surface, the conversation begins with how we show up each day for work – our appearance, and choices of fashion, hair style, piercings, and tattoos. Digging deeper, the conversation turns to how comfortable an individual is sharing personal life choices, and how their outside life intersects with their commitment and dedication to work and career choices.

What does bringing your authentic self to work mean to you?

I support the idea that this is a personal choice.

Some individuals may choose to be private about their personal lives outside of work, and simply want the freedom to separate their work lives from their non-work lives. The phrase "work family" may hold no appeal to these workers – they simply want to do their job, be treated fairly and with the respect deserved by all workers, and to be paid fairly for their contribution. This may be their authentic self.

For others, work may provide a welcome refuge from chaos at home. Families with school-aged children or those in the sandwich generation, taking care of dependent children and aging parents, may welcome a 9-hour break from “the best and worst of times” at home. Work may provide some breathing room from the weight of family responsibilities. It may also set the stage for an individual to focus on themselves, to develop work relationships and skills where their natural style aligns with progressive high performance. In the best sense, they may feel the flow of mind, body and spirit in ways that are rewarded intrinsically and extrinsically by the work they perform, and they feel authentic in their connection to work and culture.

Sadly, for many others, they find themselves exhausted at the end of each day, working towards the weekend, and wondering, “is this worth it?” Each day these individuals put on their mask (aka game face), show up at work and do their best to get through the day, wearing a mask of neutrality, so as not to show their boss or colleagues just how unhappy they are. They feel stuck, dissatisfied, undervalued, resentful, and if they bring this authentic negative self to work, the result is toxic to everyone.

Sometimes wearing a mask at work is what is required for a short duration, to get through a project or an uncomfortable task like public speaking, making cold calls, or working with a customer you don’t particularly care for. Often, when we are called upon to try something uncomfortable and new, we put on the “fake it till you make it” mask to get us over the hump, and through this experiment we may find the mask is no longer necessary – we made it – we can do this! Or, we discover the need to change our direction.

I’ve had the benefit of training and being certified in DISC – the universal language of observable behavior. Each person has a Natural Style (who we are when no one is watching), and an Adapted Style (the mask we wear to adapt to changes in environment).

While there are pure styles (High D, High I, High S, High C) this represents a very small percentage of the population. Most of us demonstrate a combination of 2 or more styles, and we adapt our behavior to the environment around us. Significant adaptation is a form of a mask, where our behaviors contradict our natural style, which can be exhausting if we are having to adapt significantly and consistently at work.

For example, an employee who has been promoted to a supervisor for doing great work in a Customer Service position they thrive in, may find themselves overwhelmed by the need to make quick decisions and having less control regarding others’ abilities. They may wear the mask of fake it till they make it, but if this doesn’t align with their natural style of decision-making and work pace, this may be a recipe for dissatisfaction and a heightened sense of Imposter Syndrome – the fear that the world will find us out, or that we are unworthy.

Another example. An employee who is quality minded who prefers to take their time with tasks but is told during a performance review that they need to work faster and handle more of the workload. This individual may fear the instability of losing their job. They may wear the mask of acceptance, while feeling anxious and afraid of letting the team down.

Fears drive the masks we wear at work and in our personal lives. If you feel that you can bring your authentic self to work – both in how you show up physically and holistically – you may feel more empowered and that you have agency and a sense of control.


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