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putting on a faceDo you ever feel you are “putting on a face” at work – being something other than your natural self? Sometimes doing this can undermine engagement and productivity.  But sometimes it is the key to being effective.

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 family and friends than with my clients or co-workers.)

Adapting our behavior, especially unconsciously, can be exhausting. If we do it both unconsciously and for too long, we can lose our authenticity; and the organization loses the richness of what we could be bringing to the table.  My friends who are African-American 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.  Organizations would do better if people could focus their energy on doing quality work rather than on fitting in.

On the other hand, adapting our behavior is sometimes important to be effective.  We do this when we are aware that someone else’s approach or style is different from 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, if I am leading a meeting, I might slow down and permit more “process” in arriving at a decision if I am 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 China, is it inauthentic to try to speak Chinese?”  Consciously flexing is not about inauthenticity.  It is about effectiveness.

When have you adapted your behavior? When has it been effective? When has it made you inauthentic?