Be yourself

When I was at my first job out of business school and applying for my second, a very supportive senior manager who I had worked with gave me a piece of friendly advice. She said, “Try not to be so ‘nice’.”

Now, you have to understand where she was coming from. She was a woman who had probably learned the hard way to not be too nice or too feminine in order to get to where she was, and she was trying being helpful. Maybe she was wishing someone had given her the same advice when she was starting out in her career. And I did appreciate her taking an interest in me and wanting to help.

Well, my job search led to an interview. Behind the interviewer there was a huge mirror and about half way through the interview I noticed my reflection. I was scowling and for a second I didn’t even recognize myself. I was shocked by how unfriendly I looked and tried to relax my face. A couple of weeks later I was offered the job and I’m not sure if it was because I succeeded in not coming across as ‘too nice’ or if it was because I decided to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t about half way through the interview. All I know is that in that moment I decided that I couldn’t and I wouldn’t rearrange my face or my attitude according to someone else’s definition of what it takes to succeed. I decided that if I’m not hired because I seem too nice or too friendly for some organization, then it’s not the right organization for me.

But that senior manager is by no means alone in her experiences. What I have found in my research is that many people – both men and women, but especially women – feel like they can’t really be themselves in their corporate jobs. It’s one of the main issues that hits me in so many of the narratives of opting out and in that I have collected. After having created a way of working on their own terms, many report finally being able to be who they really are and not having to hide different aspects of their lives and personalities. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of authenticity, which has a great positive impact on their wellbeing.

So imagine my surprise when I was attending the Work Goes Happy event in Helsinki last week. I walked past a stand with a poster displaying necessary, strategic elements for a successful and productive career, and in one of the big circles it said, “be yourself”. I stopped in my tracks and asked the person at the stand to tell me more about that, because in my experience this is something that people don’t necessarily feel that they can do.

Well, it might be a generational issue. Are the people currently starting out in their career better at being themselves and making sure they are allowed to do so than older generations? Or maybe it’s a hierarchical issue? Is it harder to be yourself the higher up you get in corporate hierarchies? Maybe it’s a bit of both?

But one thing I do know is that being yourself is a good thing. I’m with that consultant I met at the event on this. It’s good for you, but it’s also good for your organization. We already know that diversity is a strength, but allowing for diversity also means letting people be who they are and not trying to force them into a mold. It increases their sense of authenticity and acceptance, their wellbeing, and as a result also their productivity. Letting them be themselves will simply make them happier at work.

So, let’s do it. Let’s all be ourselves. Besides, it’ll make your organization a much more interesting place to be.

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No offence but… 3 rules of thumb for constructive communication

It never ceases to amaze me how two people who speak the same language can have such trouble understanding each other. I often seem to witness this and find myself translating from one language to the same language. The problem is that people don’t always come across as they intend and the other person doesn’t always hear what’s really being said. It’s a recipe for misunderstanding.

Sometimes we need to raise difficult issues with others, but how do we do this without offending the other person? How can we enable a constructive dialogue? Here are three things that are good to remember:

  1. You’ve probably already learned about sandwiching constructive criticism. This is something that is taught in schools, workplaces, leadership training programs and a number of other places. What you do is sandwich your criticism between positive feedback. By doing so you start by making the other person feel good about him or herself, you then talk about what could be improved, and finally you end with something good, reminding the person that they are appreciated and good at whatever it is they are doing. It’s effective and it’s also just a nice way of going about it.

This is pretty basic, however there are also a couple of other things that are good to remember but that people don’t usually think of:

  1. Pointing fingers really doesn’t help. If somebody’s behavior is irritating or just not desired, you won’t get them to change their behavior by starting your sentence with things like “You always…” or “Why do you always have to…” This feels like an attack and it will most likely end the conversation before it even started. A better strategy is to turn it around and start with yourself. Explain how the behavior makes you feel. For example, try starting your sentence with “I feel uncomfortable when you…”or “”It hurts my feelings when…” or “I get confused if…” or, more for something more work related, “Our business partners don’t understand when…” Talking about your own experience instead of issuing blame is a much better strategy and might even lead to a discussion and a solution to the problem.

 

  1. And finally, one of of my pet peeves. I get frustrated when people say things like “No offense, but…” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” or like what I recently heard, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…” It’s amazing how often I hear this and it is a completely disastrous way to start a sentence. When you start with “No offense, but” it makes absolutely no difference what you say after that because offence will already have been taken. When hearing that, what a person really hears is “WARNING! WARNING! What I am about to say is actually going to be very offensive and hurtful and probably also an attack, but I’m trying to be nice about it and I don’t want you to react negatively.” You see the problem here? And ironically, most of the time what follows really isn’t that offensive at all but it comes across as such just by the way it is presented. So if you, for example, don’t love the music that your friend is playing, don’t say “No offense, but this isn’t my favorite music”. Try instead to just say “You know, this isn’t my favorite type of music”. It sounds much less offensive. Because you’re not insulting your friend’s taste in music, your just having a conversation about what kind of music you do and don’t normally listen to. Or instead of saying, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but could it have been a misunderstanding?” try just saying, “Could it have been a misunderstanding?” Trust me, much less offensive.

So this is something for you to think about and to try. Let’s all do each other a favor and offend each other less so we can start communicating more effectively.