Husnara Begum Head & Shoulders Image

Husnara Begum, owner

How comfortable do you feel bringing your whole or genuine self to work? As I’ve written in a previous blog post (Why I played Pinocchio to fit in), I spent most of my teens and twenties telling fibs about who I really was to my family, friends and colleagues alike. In other words, I adopted one version of myself around family, another when I was in the company of friends and yet another amongst colleagues.

The big challenge was that the three different versions of myself were worlds apart. Faking it therefore was often mentally exhausting and ultimately resulted in me having a full-blown identity crisis smack bang in the middle of my training contract. I became completely confused about who I really wanted to be and whether my Asian heritage, culture and religion were irreconcilable with a long-term and fulfilling career as a City lawyer?

Particularly because, back then, I felt only the well-heeled, private school and Oxbridge educated, rugby playing male trainee solicitors and their female equivalents (think killer heels, power suits, pashminas and designer handbags) had what it takes to succeed as lawyers. What’s more, as a teetotaller I also struggled with the boozy culture and feared that if I didn’t join my colleagues for that swift post-work pint I’d be labelled as being reclusive or simply not get noticed by relevant partners.

No such thing as a City type

Thankfully, the City is becoming increasingly diverse and my initial assumptions of there being a City type have generally proven to be wrong. Looking around me, I can now see that it takes all sorts to succeed in the Square Mile. What’s more, I also appreciate the importance of adopting a wider and more flexible definition of success. And though sport and alcohol remain the glue that binds many workplace relationships, I’m also glad to say that networking and business development have shifted away from Soho bars and golf courses in favour of more formal settings.

The authenticity paradox

I’ve also come to the realisation that it’s fine to have many selves, depending on the different roles we play (colleague, spouse, parent etc) and these are likely to evolve as our values, beliefs, priorities and interests change over time, and as we continue to learn. However, how we present ourselves as individuals, particularly those of us from diverse backgrounds, should broadly be based on our own terms and what we feel most comfortable with.

That said, as an aspiring and junior City professional looking to up your game, adopting a too rigid concept of ‘identity and self’ risks becoming an anchor that potentially keeps you from sailing forth and progressing at work. Conversely, overdoing the fakery can be off-putting for others because chances are you’ll come across as disingenuous and get written off as a snake rather than a chameleon.

Confused? I certainly was when I first started to explore how to become more versatile and bring my true self to different situations. And why all the fuss?

Benefit of brining your whole self to work

Husnara in a yellow sari

Husnara – a proud Bangladeshi

You’re no doubt already familiar with the importance of authentic leadership – there’s nothing new there. But why wait until you’re a leader? There are multiple benefits of bringing your genuine self to work as early career professionals, particularly for those of you who like me have diverse backgrounds or have an unconventional route into the City.

As I’ve already mentioned, faking it is mentally exhausting and can therefore make you less productive. Brining your whole self to work, meanwhile, increases your confidence and self-esteem. It also helps build positive meaningful relationships at work, which contribute towards your personal brand, career fulfilment and longer-term success. And just as importantly, from the perspective of your organisation, it raises cultural awareness and encourages diversity of thought.

How to be more authentic at work

There is no prescribed way of being authentic at work and with most new skills you may find that it takes more than one attempt to get it right. I’d recommend stepping outside of your comfort zone and giving yourself permission to experiment. To begin with, aim to be more self-aware, including gaining a realistic view of how others see you. Also, stretch the limits of who you are and what’s comfortable. Aim to be versatile and recognise the importance of adapting to different situations.

Treat all your colleagues as individuals, remain curious and rather than just assuming ask open questions. Listen attentively and until the other person is fully heard and understood. Also, teach yourself how to read a room, including other people’s body language, but remember to be mindful of your own non-verbal leakage that might send conflicting signals to others.

Learn to tell your life story in a way that releases positive energy and inspires others but keep revelations genuine and avoid exaggeration. Consider the relevance of what you’re about to disclose to a given situation or task at hand. Also, avoid wearing your heart on your sleeve too early in a relationship (that said, showing a bit of vulnerability in certain situations isn’t all bad because none of us are infallible). Though intimate revelations can strengthen your bond with someone they aren’t always the best way to get a workplace relationship off the ground.

Finally, if like my younger self, you struggle to engage with colleagues who at first glance have little in common with you why not use the interactions you have with them as a learning opportunity? I knew nothing about cricket and opera until I started my training contract and I still don’t know much, but the process of discovering more about both was more interesting than I had ever imagined – proving just how wrong it is to jump to conclusions. And remember, taking an interest and appreciating others’ views and way of life doesn’t mean you’re compromising your own.

Husnara Begum, skills trainer and careers expert for lawyers