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Ever feel like you’re swimming upstream when it comes to your work or the way you do it?
Even without a global pandemic, plenty of barriers show up along the way to derail our professional lives altogether or send us in a completely different direction. There’s no shortage of advice about improving our opportunities by conforming to everybody’s expectations.
Maybe there’s something to be said for not just going with the flow and trying to fit in.
What if the real answer is to be more of who you really are?
That’s the suggestion from philanthropist Melinda Gates. In National Geographic’s special issue about women, Gates was emphatic that fitting in is overrated.
“I spent my first few years at my first job out of college doing everything I could to make myself more like the people around me. It didn’t bring out the best in me–and it didn’t position me to bring out the best in others.
The best advice I have to offer is: Seek out people and environments that empower you to be nothing but yourself.”
Being “nothing but herself” seems to be working out well for Gates, doesn’t it? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the largest private charitable groups in the world. And her net worth is said to be $70 Billion.
On the subject of successful women who resist fitting in, Oprah Winfrey walked away from a fabulous gig at 60 Minutes when she felt they were trying to turn her into something she’s not.
Oprah told Hollywood Reporter it came down to demands that she conform in those famous introductions at the beginning of the show. You know … “I’m Bill Whitaker.” “I’m Lesley Stahl.” “I’m Anderson Cooper.”
Then there was “I’m Oprah Winfrey.” And Oprah says the producers wanted her to sound like the rest of the 60 Minutes stars.
“They would say, ‘All right, you need to flatten out your voice, there’s too much emotion in your voice.’ So I was working on pulling myself down and flattening out my personality — which, for me, is actually not such a good thing.”
It’s easier for Oprah than for the rest of us to “take this job and shove it.” The longtime star won’t have any trouble paying the bills, even without a paycheck from CBS.
Still, we can learn something from what she says about demands to conform. That “flattening out,” as Oprah calls it, might not be such a good thing for any of us.
Yes, of course, there are laws and rules that many of us must follow in our work. And to the extent that we want to be part of a particular organization, we may need to rein ourselves in a bit.
This seems like a time, though, when there’s enough disruption, innovation, and plain old change that we can find a way to be who really are and succeed professionally.
And organizations would do well to allow that, if not encourage it.
An Inc. article points to research from the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion suggesting that 61% of employees go out of their way to hide some aspect of themselves at work.
That can range anywhere from a gay professional keeping their sexuality secret to a parent keeping quiet about the kids in an effort to sound more serious about work to someone hiding a health issue for fear of the reactions they’d get if people knew about it.
Downplaying their differences is especially common for women and minorities. But 45% of straight white men report there’s something they keep quiet about to fit in better at work.
And, of course, there’s a cost for all this covering up of who we really are. It’s a lot of effort to keep the mask on. And a lot of freedom when we take it off and be who we really are.
Deloitte suggests a new perspective on “diversity” that goes beyond race, ethnicity, and gender. They even propose different language because so many people think a diversity discussion doesn’t apply to them.
When managers launch conversations about “covering,” they say, there’s a fuller exploration about what each of us covers up. That allows for a dialogue about differences and about what might happen if we took the lid off our authentic selves.
This is a way for organizations to do well by doing good.
Embracing individuality can have a business benefit. It enhances a team’s performance and eliminates the blindspots that come up when we all see things the same way. And not just in matters of gender and ethnicity and other big societal issues.
Example from the Deloitte report: a YouTube team realized 10% of videos were being loaded upside down. Because the entirely right-handed engineering group had failed to account for how left-handed people hold their phones.
Taking full advantage of diversity means no more downplaying our differences. It means everyone uncovers. And instead of striving to fit in, we each bring our full self to work.
What might that mean for you and me?
I’ve been thinking about this question of fitting in vs. being my authentic self when it comes to speaking.
There’s a lot for me to learn from people with more experience and bigger reputations—and incomes! At the same time, I tell my clients what an audience wants most from you is you. That be-true-to-yourself suggestion probably applies to me too.
For now, I’m resisting the pressure to become some kind of television producer with a bunch of fancy equipment turning my office into a studio. A lot of experts are recommending exactly that as meetings and events move to virtual platforms.
I don’t doubt that the technological transformation works. I’m just not sure it would work for me. So, I’m leaning in to my speaking strengths: connection and conversation with an audience.
That means organizations that want fancy video footwork won’t want me. So far, there are plenty of others that do.
And what about you?
Whatever field you’re in, are you ready to let go of fitting in as we head into this New Year?
What would happen if you showed up fully, completely in your business?
Post a comment below and tell us how you can be more of who you really are.