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Being Our Authentic Selves at Work

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Can we truly be our authentic selves at work, or are we at times covering? Covering takes energy and can isolate people; companies that foster authenticity and remove barriers that inhibit people from being themselves tend to be more successful.

At Women in Tech Dublin 2019, a panel consisting of Mairead Cullen, CIO at Vodafone Ireland, and Ingrid Devin, director of Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network, discussed being our authentic selves at work. The panel was led by Ruth Scott, radio, TV presenter, MC and event host.

Scott started the panel by asking what our authentic self is. Cullen stated that we are all unique in our skills, behavior, and who we are. She suggested to be comfortable with that, and share our authentic self in the workplace. "We should follow the path we made for ourselves, not follow a path defined by others," she said.

Scott mentioned that at times people do cover themselves up, something that happens to everyone, as being yourself isn’t always easy. Devin confirmed this; being your authentic self can be hard, it can be a tough thing to do. She gave the example of people having to work in a culture that doesn’t mirror their values.

Being your authentic self isn’t binary; it’s not something you fully do or don’t, said Devin. She suggested to take small steps and be yourself in some aspects.

Cullen said that it can be subtle things that people are covering; small but potentially important things. As it takes energy to put up that mask, it would be better if people could be their authentic selves and take their masks off. It also prevents them from isolating themselves.

When people cannot "be themselves," how does it affect companies? Devin stated that companies that allow people to behave authentically will be more successful.

Cullen mentioned that nobody is the same at work as they are at home. It is normal to be different in the workplace than at home, but when the individual feels this difference is forced upon them and consumes effort to maintain the difference, then it is a problem.

Companies have to think about what their brand is, said Cullen. This impacts the possibilities for people to associate themselves with the company and be themselves.

Devin mentioned that it can be small things that indicate people can be themselves, but they can mean an awful lot. It’s important to recognize and address things that inhibit people to be authentic at work.

Cullen stated that it’s important for big organizations to show their leadership from the top-down, but equally important is bottom-up leadership. Both are needed to make a difference, as well as sponsorship of diversity and inclusion (D&I). The senior leadership team needs to be a role model and actually put into practise the D&I policies. In addition, it is important to have the bottom-up input, with employees providing feedback and participating in employee resource groups.

Flexible working practices like working hours and unlimited holidays are really important to allow people to be themselves. They have to be lived in the organization to really work, Cullen said. She gave the example of a senior person in her company who took term time; the fact that it was a senior person doing this influenced others who were considering it.

When you hear someone say something inappropriate, it might be difficult to call it out. Most of us have been in such situations, said Scott. As you're being put on the spot and aren’t prepared, you might not react at that moment. Reflecting later, you know that you should have responded, she said.

Cullen spoke about the journey at Vodafone when it comes to enabling people to be themselves. It started with the passion that some people in the organization had for this topic, supported by senior sponsorship. Next, they trained their managers.

"You are never done," said Cullen. She mentioned an example where they found out that the language used in job offers had an unconscious masculine bias. They corrected and improved the language to avoid putting people off and preventing talented people from applying for a job.

Devin’s advice is to always think about what you do and remain aware of what’s happening. It might be a joke that you made which isn’t funny or the language that we use which offends people. Small things may lead to people covering themselves up.

The panel members also spoke about gender challenges for entrepreneurs. Devin mentioned that getting funding for women is hard. She gave an example of a couple who ran a company where, depending on the situation, they would decide which of them would go out to get funding. "That shouldn’t be needed," she said, "we have to get more female investors."

One conference attendee asked that as being authentic can be difficult, what should companies do to make it possible? Cullen suggested looking at the company’s diversity and inclusion policies, and explore if there are any bottlenecks in the employment pipeline that prevent people from getting in. Devin stated that it is crucial for companies to get the right talent.

In another question from the room, an attendee asked for advice for someone who has dyslexia. Should they be open and tell people, and how to do that? Devin suggested that if you need small accommodations you should just ask for them. "We’re all different," she said, "and companies have to be inclusive to accommodate everyone."

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