- A Level Head -
by fergus mellon
This is a tough one. In the first few years of work it can be hard to be yourself as you are still working out what the professional world is all about and just how much of the real you, you can show this new world that you are inhabiting.
While you are working through this and as a default, focus on being professional. And, at the core, what this means is being serious about your work and taking the steps that are laid out throughout the companion book, Early Stage Professional: Starting Off Right.
In addition to firing on all professional cylinders, try to be yourself in the workplace. By being yourself I do not mean your "Friday night fun-self", instead focus on who you are as a human being. If you have a sense of humor feel that you can show it to your boss as long as it is not in a serious meeting. If you are a very serious person, then feel you can show that. And if you are a kind person, show it.
The only types of personality I would recommend covering up are the ones that companies with a healthy culture will not want: the bully, the hyper-competitive person, the douche bag. If you are one of these kinds of people it is highly unlikely that showing these negative traits will result in sustained career success for you. While covering up your negative traits is a smart move it is also the minimum you should be doing. I would really recommend examining how you can change and become a more collaborative and decent human being. Your traits of being a bully and / or hyper-competitive are more likely to get in your way to career (and life) success than help it over the long term. As more and more people experience the negative you, your reputation in the workplace and broader industry will suffer and you will find it gets more and more difficult if not impossible to gain a promotion or even just retain your job. A big reason for this is that as you get progressively senior, the skills and traits that matter most are inter-personal and team working skills. Generally speaking people only want to partner with trustworthy individuals, and as I say, partnering is a key part of being senior because you will need the help and support of the other departments that you work with. So even if the "try to be a better human being" argument is not enough to correct the "douchey" behaviors, hopefully this appeal to self-interest will resonate with you!
To conclude and getting back to the positive: if you take your work seriously and your output is great, then being yourself is something that your co-workers and managers will appreciate. Do it!
Be Yourself But Fit In!
There is always a caveat, right? While you should focus on being true to yourself don't expect the company you work for (unless it is truly tiny and super flexible) to bend to you. This is not to say give up trying to make your company a better place (to paraphrase Michael Jackson's message from Man in the Mirror: "if you want to make the world a better place look at the man in the mirror and make the change") but instead know you are joining an organization that has its own culture and this culture is bigger than any one individual.
You need to fit with and be part of this culture!
If you don't like the culture and feel it is opposed to your values then you should move on. You are unlikely to change it. If it is too informal / formal / frugal / profligate / etc. / etc. do not waste your time complaining about it. Instead I would recommend understanding the culture and doing your best to go with it. Even if long term you want to be in a different culture you will get more out of your experience by going with it rather than against it.
As long as it is not an unhealthy culture (racist, sexist, bullying etc.) it will be a strong learning experience for later on in your life. When you get the chance either to lead a team or run your own business, you will be able to ensure you craft a culture that fits with your values as well as your team's.
Next section: Staying Positive.
Related column: "Be the Genuine Article"
In the first 5 or so years of your career? Want actionable career advice? Buy Early Stage Professional: starting off right, the no nonsense professional skills book designed so that everyone can succeed in the workplace!
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