The internal skirmish before entering any new role, team or even a new client meeting largely revolves around these existential questions: “Should I be myself? How much do I reveal? What will people think of me?” These zip around our minds, intensified by the pressure on us to lean in, lean out, work like a man (more on that shortly), be a boss but not, y’know, bossy. The rhetoric around who we should be at work and our professional persona is endless – and it’s totally exhausting.
Even the word persona, which means mask in Latin, suggests we’re covering up our true identity by using one. So why do some of us choose a different persona at work to the one we have at home? “We create work personas as a coping mechanism to succeed,” says award-winning psychologist Natasha Tiwari. “We believe, at a deeply unconscious level, that who we are is not ‘enough’ or appropriate for the environment, so we craft a persona that will get us further. But a work persona can also help us to be our most confident, capable selves if it’s truly aligned with who we believe we are,” she explains.
Another reason we adopt them is as survival mechanism, says business and comparison coach Lucy Sheridan. “From a young age we observe how to be a grown-up and it shapes our beliefs of what that looks like. Then, when it comes to getting jobs as adults, we look closely at how successful people are presenting themselves and we interpret or emulate that in our own way. We think, ‘What do I need to change or correct to fit in and thrive?’” she says.
But right now, we’ve got some respite from having to live up to our work personas. That’s because since March “the office” has consisted of us sprawling across dining tables or taking a Zoom from any room with a sliver of daylight, so our colleagues and clients can peer into our private lives and spaces. And though we might not have stopped to consider it, we are all presenting a new, more relaxed sense of self in this new work world. Though the situation is stressful on almost every level, there is one small upside: it’s shining a light on how we show up at work and whether our workplace personas are really working for us.
A lot comes down to how we interpret the term “persona”. For so many of us it’s being able to “work like a man”, which has become the dominant narrative that we receive from self-help books, films and even our own bosses or mentors. The theme? That in order to thrive at work we should assume traditionally masculine characteristics such as being strong, fearless or unswerving.
“We’ve been conditioned, unconsciously, to believe that to succeed in a world dominated by men our work personas should reflect this. But this isn’t true, and it can be difficult to remove that conditioning and let our true selves shine through,” says Tiwari. Sheridan agrees, adding that the whole way work is organised is built by patriarchy and that’s the issue. “If we look at systems in place in corporate parts of the workplace, they’re hierarchical and they prize masculine qualities in terms of ‘drive’, ‘progress’ and ‘taking the bull by the horns’ as ways to succeed at work. And if you’re not male, you’re given the signal you must play by those rules – we’ve always been told work was a ‘man’s world,’ so we often adapt our persona to align with that,” she explains.
But having a persona that’s too severe or bullish can also affect those around you, including those you lead, as Suki,* 42, a creative consultant who spent 15 years working in advertising, explains. “One of my bosses was always trying to be ‘masculine’ at work. She was cold and unapproachable; I’d fear hearing her footsteps walking into the office each morning when she’d sit down without even saying good morning. She literally only spoke to her team to bark orders or to criticise. But then, at our team drinks on Thursday afternoons, she’d completely switch to being jokey and silly – even her regional accent came back. You never knew who the real person was, or where you stood with her. It felt like an ‘attack’ was always imminent because of how false she was at work, and made us all very unhappy and anxious,” she says.
Things are changing though, in how we see strength, believes Sheridan. “The way we work is now more open to criticism and review, thankfully. We should be aware of those old rules and look at them to see if they are working for us,” she says. Breaking down the old narratives might take the form of offering to help organise team outings to encourage level interaction or setting up mentoring schemes, for example. But as Sheridan warns, there’s one trap to veer away from. “Watch out for being exhorted to have a ‘personal brand’ in the workplace,“ she says. “We’ve been told it’s advantageous to adopt one, but it’s the same as having a mask and can come across as quite off-putting if used excessively,” she says.
Used diligently, a work persona can play a role in our career as a practical way of dividing up your day, says Sheridan. “Letting that mask slip when you’re not at work helps us differentiate the different roles in our lives,” she says. But when they’re so radically different at home and at work, it can start to impact our general behaviour. “You have to keep changing the facade as situations change and you can start to feel scared of being yourself in the workplace, which leads into insecurity and anxiety.” Researchers even discovered a “positive association between experienced authenticity and leaders’ well-being,” according to research in the Journal of Burnout Research. “You can be more formal when you need to, but don’t forget people want to laugh and know who you are,” Sheridan adds.
But sometimes keeping it up is just our coping method, says Rebecca*, 32, who works in tech communication. “Part of my job is to work closely with and provide counsel to CEOs and senior executives. In my first role, I found myself creating a work persona to help me feel more confident, especially when I was always the youngest, most junior person in the room and often the only woman. But as I became more senior I realised I could let this slip and relax a little,” she says.
Creative director Natasha Tomalin-Hall, 32, also built up a persona to help navigate career success at a young age – and clothing was one of the ways she did that. “When I took on my first art directorship I was quite young, so felt the need to be taken seriously. For me that consisted of changing how I dressed to an exclusively black wardrobe. It gave me a sense of power and made me feel older, which at the time is what I thought I needed to command respect.” But over time she allowed that to soften and found it helped her connect better with colleagues: “At work I’m still professional and like to be taken seriously. But I’ve let facets of my private life slip in too – I am fairly silly, do a lot of larking about and talking in silly voices. Now private Tash often seeps into my working life when I’m having a laugh with colleagues and the guard comes down. It does feel easier to maintain,” she says.
And as more of us are (particularly in the current climate) switching between roles – whether that’s parent, child, carer, boss, mentee and more – it can be taxing to maintain the guise. “If the mask has slipped, it will usually have been under some stress, or anxiety-inducing event,” says Tiwari. “This means the episode is doubly stressful. Firstly, because it is, but secondly because you’ll have a sense that you have ‘failed’ and shown yourself nakedly. Being authentic while still professional is an art, but without doubt will lead to more happiness, and less stress,” she adds.
One of the biggest reasons we reach for the workplace persona is our fear of being seen as sensitive or emotional – and by default, weak. Sheridan explains, “For a long time being sensitive was seen as fragile and not capable. If you don’t worry about people’s feelings you can go about your business quicker, which makes your company more money. It’s actually very sinister when you think about how this culture has evolved.”
But things are changing, with buzzwords like sensitivity and vulnerability making their way into the workplace. “They were shut out of the workplace because they weren’t serving an agenda,” says Sheridan. “But now we’re no longer tolerating workplace aggression or bullying, and this new culture that embraces sensitivity is making us kinder, more empathetic workmates, clients and employees. If we allow somebody else to be sensitive and vulnerable with us, it’s an authentic way to connect more with each other in business and beyond– humour and connection go a long way.”
Podcaster and personal development expert Lewis Howes even goes so far as to build this into his work, inviting his podcast guests into the studio early just to find out how they are and to have a sense of ease when interviewing them. “Becoming more attuned to our colleagues and clients by getting to know them is one of the best ways to become more authentic at work,” says Sheridan. “It doesn’t detract from your power or status, if anything it adds to it. And the bonus is you’ll foster a calmer, kinder work environment.” There’s literally no better time to just do you.
*Names have been changed
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