Yesterday was Halloween, the one day each year that we all get to put on costumes and masks and pretend to be something other than what we are. I hope you had a grand Halloween. I had a ball watching my 14-month old granddaughter (she was dressed as a fuzzy yellow duckling) and hundreds of other adorable children—and adults–on the Boulder mall. I saw lots of fun, imaginative get-ups. This got me thinking about the phenomenon of assuming masks or mimicking someone else’s identity in the workplace. There are two ways that we do this. One undermines engagement and productivity. One promotes effectiveness.
The first way that we take on another’s ways comes from the natural but unconscious effort to “fit in.” Every organization reflects the values, beliefs and habits of those with most influence—usually those at the top. They set the norms—what is acceptable and what is not. It is natural, adaptive behavior that newcomers observe the norms of a group and try to operate somewhat consistently with them. It is also natural that we behave somewhat more formally at work than at play. (I, for example, am more likely to be silly or irreverent with my friends than with my clients or co-workers.)
But if people at work adapt their behavior unconsciously, it can be exhausting, undermining engagement and effectiveness. If they do it both unconsciously and too long, they can lose their authenticity; and the organization loses the richness of what they could be bringing to the table. My friends who are Black have told me that they often spend energy acting “white.” I know myself and from many corporate women that women often spend energy trying to do work in a “masculine” way. Wouldn’t organizations do better if people could focus their energy on doing quality work rather than on fitting in?
The second way that we let another’s ways influence our own involves “flexing” one’s approach to increase effectiveness. We do this when we are aware that someone else’s approach or style is different than our own—and we adjust our own behavior to make them more comfortable, to improve communication or to take advantage of the strengths of their approach. For example, some one leading a meeting might slow down and permit more “process” in arriving at a decision if he or he is aware that some people on the team are more process oriented and that more time to process might improve the decision!
People have asked me if, by encouraging this kind of “flexing” I am encouraging inauthenticity. I answer: “If you are doing business in Germany, is it inauthentic to try to speak German?” Consciously flexing isn’t about inauthenticity. It is about effectiveness.