Professional Development

How to be yourself at work

Written by Eric Titner

If you’re like most people, you’ve encountered at least one situation at work in which you’ve wondered, “How should I behave?” “Can I be myself in this situation or do I need to act a certain way?” These situations can be challenging to navigate and can make an already stressful job experience harder than it is—or needs to be.

The truth is, for most people, the subject of workplace behavior can be a tricky balancing act. On one hand, you want to approach your job—whatever level or industry you’re currently in—as a rung on a ladder. At the top sit your ultimate professional and career goals, and you want to align your on-the-job behavior in a way that will best help you climb gracefully and easily. On the other hand, you don’t want to create an artificial or disingenuous work persona that’s so far removed from who you really are that you make yourself miserable.

Your main goal is to strike a positive and productive balance, using your well-honed workplace instincts and your true sense of self to become an effective and genuine employee that your coworkers appreciate having around. The following are some proven strategies to help you stay on track.

Be situation smart.

Truly successful employees make it a point to learn the unique “ins and outs” of their specific work environments. On top of doing their jobs effectively, they study their colleagues and their particular work styles—how they like to collaborate, their preferred communication tools, the tone and topics they typically respond best to.

Once you get a good handle on your work environment, you can best understand when and where you can be your true self. Are you a lighthearted employee who prefers face-to-face conversations and a casual tone when discussing work-related issues? If so, be sure to figure out which of your colleagues this style works best with and feel confident that you can be your “true self” when dealing with them.

And what about those more serious coworkers who prefer everything to be handled over email with a minimum of witty banter? It can really be in your best interest to modulate your approach to best suit their needs and preferences—not only will this increase your chances of handling work issues effectively, it should also score you some points with these folks, which is never a bad thing.

Pay attention to clues.

The most effective employees are truly self-reflective workers—they make it a habit to analyze their behaviors across situations in an effort to discover what works best. This gives them a tremendous advantage when encountering any type of work issue. From what to wear on any given day or event to how aggressive or laid back to be in a meeting and how freely you should share constructive criticism or new ideas, they truly make an effort to analyze a situation and tailor their approach accordingly. There’s a time and a place for most things at work—the trick is to learn the crucial when, where, and with whom.

Learn from mistakes.

Let’s be honest—no one is perfect, and we all have done things that we’d love to take back or erase, given the chance. But those who tend to be most successful in their work environments are those who learn from mistakes—both theirs as well as the mistakes of others. It stands to reason that the best measure of what works and what doesn’t is history, and this holds true for the world of work as well. Did you or a colleague deliver a presentation that fell flat? Do you know someone at work who coworkers tend to avoid whenever possible—or perhaps you’re this person?

If so, analyze the situation and take an honest look at things in an effort to figure out what’s wrong and where you can get back on the right track moving forward. Strong employees don’t approach this as a moment to declare, “I just can’t be myself when I’m at work!” or, “I’m stuck in a hopeless situation!” Instead, they take it as a helpful inflection point, a time to address challenges head on and make improvements in an effort to get further up that career ladder. Oftentimes, the truest way to discover the right approach is by learning which ones are wrong. Trial and error are great guides in life.

The Bottom Line

It’s been said that effective employees are like chameleons. They have an uncanny ability to adapt and blend into all sorts of situations. While this may or may not mean that you can completely and totally be “yourself” in every situation you’ll encounter at work, the truth is that most of us have a wide range of behaviors that comprise who we are—at various times, we’re serious or playful, focused or multitasking, talkative or quiet—the trick to being your “true self” at work is to know which aspect of your personality is appropriate given the situation. Follow the strategies outlined here and before long you should find yourself climbing higher and higher up that ladder to career success.

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.