From Live Mint
Be yourself,” is what we hear all the time. It’s what we are supposed to be wherever we go. From school to college to workplace…er, perhaps not the workplace.
A polite smile or tactful silence may be more conducive to your well-being at the workplace than saying what you actually think and feel, believes Oliver C. Robinson, senior lecturer (psychology) at the UK’s University of Greenwich.
Why? “Being yourself at work doesn’t work because of a need to put on a front. There’s an awful amount of impression management (people trying to influence the perception of others for vested interests) at work, that is required at work,” Robinson explained while presenting a study he had co-authored, Should You Bother Being Yourself At Work? The Effect Of Social Context On The Relationship Between Authenticity And Well-being, at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in 2012 in London.
That having been said, there is ample research to suggest that bringing your true self to the office improves motivation and performance.
So which road should you take?
“Be yourself, but be careful,” suggests Amit K. Nandkeolyar, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “You have to be mindful of the timing, of the person standing in front and of the context—it can be in terms of dressing, talking or reacting. You can’t show up in tattered jeans and a slogan T-shirt in a corporate meeting. Each organization has certain unwritten norms which every employee is expected to follow,” he says.
Similar views were shared in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Be Yourself, But Carefully”, which described the honest sharing of thoughts, feelings and experiences at work as a “double-edged sword”. “Despite its potential benefits, self-disclosure can backfire if it’s hastily conceived, poorly timed or inconsistent with cultural or organizational norms—hurting your reputation, alienating employees, fostering distrust and hindering teamwork. Getting it right takes a deft touch for leaders at any stage of their careers,” noted the article.
The persona “should be in alignment with who s/he is and the place they are in”, says Santhosh Babu, a well-known executive coach and founder of consulting firm Organization Development Alternatives Consultants Pvt. Ltd. “We all want to merge and make others feel we are like them, and at the same time, we want them to feel we are unique. So how would I bring my uniqueness that communicates my brand without upsetting the norms of the place that I am in is the question to ask,” he adds.
Learn to connect
Babu believes that every employee needs to work on three skills: human capital, social capital and cultural capital. “Human capital is the ability to communicate; it is your strategic thinking and functional knowledge. To use it effectively, you need to develop social capital, the ability to connect, network and build trusted connections. Cultural capital is the ability to understand and adapt to your organization’s culture. Those who are able to adjust and adapt to that succeed in influencing the organization,” he says.
A growing body of research suggests that you should begin with warmth. It’s not easy to fake warmth; you have to genuinely feel it, even if you don’t like the person but have to deal with him or her every single day. And the best way to show warmth is to smile sincerely. “We tend to focus more on what’s not working than what’s working. If we can appreciate positive behaviour in others, look for positive intent and core strengths, we could influence people positively,” says Babu.
Sucharita Palepu, global head of people policies and practices at information technology services firm Tech Mahindra, agrees: “Every individual is a combination of pros and cons, and it’s just a matter of where you choose to look. Invest time and effort in finding out about the people you work with and focus on their positives.”
Being warm helps you connect immediately with those around you, facilitating trust, openness, cooperation and absorption of ideas, adds Nandkeolyar.
It also helps to emphasize similarities. A study, published in 2004 in the journal Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, says that demonstrating that you have something in common with someone else improves social relations.
So go ahead, open up and show your human side to your seniors, juniors and team members. But remember, time it right. “The contextual awareness plays an important role. When you have only 10 minutes with your senior, there is no point starting the conversation with things like how bad the traffic is these days, or what happened at the office yesterday; a bullet-point communication is the way to go ahead,” says Babu. Don’t be a conversational narcissist. Learn to listen. As Babu says, “The listener in me creates the speaker in you.”
Use email sparingly
We have all received those cc-ed (“keeping you in the loop”) mails which weren’t really meant for us. And we have all received those “Oks” we don’t know were genuine or sarcastic. While electronic mail might be an extremely convenient way of communicating, it is also the reason employees are having trouble communicating.
“We tend to overuse mails,” says Ramya Ranganathan, professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, adding: “Emails lack emotion. You can hide behind them and say things that you can’t say face to face.”
The original intention of emails was to streamline our daily tasks and make sharing of information simpler and faster. Nowadays, however, mails are written hastily (read poorly), resulting in loss of time and productivity, and leaving a poor impression on the reader, says Nandkeolyar. According to a 2012 report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., people spend about 30% of their time at work on emails. “As a result, there are high chances of words being misconstrued. It is important to understand how you form your sentences and the kind of words you use,” he says.
How does one decide which medium to use and when? Moderation and discretion are key to the use of emails for office communication, believes Palepu. “Face to face, or even a telephonic conversation, would be a much better idea when we are trying to communicate an important business decision or resolve a conflict. While emails seem like a quicker, less stressful and less confrontational way to deal with critical issues, it can pave the way for a time-consuming debate,” she says.
Understand the kind of equation you share with the person you have to send a mail to, suggests Prof. Ranganathan. “If you want to discuss an idea with your senior, first mail him or her and then approach personally. If you leave it only to face-to-face conversation, there is a risk that the conversation might just go in tangents. However, face-to-face conversation has the potential to bring in an element of spontaneity, and the quick back-and-forth thinking might just encourage another new idea,” she says, adding: “Face-to-face conversation is rich communication; your body language, expression, energy—all contribute to the dialogue.”
Don’t agree? Say it, smartly
Whether it’s waiting in line for coffee or the copier, or the annual office party, there’s no getting away from casual chats about the layoffs, the underperformers, the overachievers, the boss-haters and, of course, the salary math. Pretty much everyone indulges in idle talk face to face, or even on online messengers. After all, you do have to socialize with the people around you, and some studies have concluded that gossiping strengthens workplace friendships and increases cooperation among employees.
But what if you want to avoid the gossip without being labelled the odd one out? “Simply change the topic. Start a conversation about something completely different,” suggests Babu.
Or maybe you could excuse yourself. “People will vent, but it is important to understand the difference between fact and opinion. You can be firm about your beliefs and not indulge at all. This would lead to you not being in the good books of your peers; however, with time, the same colleagues will appreciate you for your firm values,” says Dedeepya Ajith John, senior knowledge adviser at the India chapter of the international association, Society for Human Resource Management.
Likewise, it’s perfectly okay if you don’t like the idea your senior suggested in the morning meeting. It’s tricky territory, but you can question it. “The art lies in how you do it. When you do not agree with the content someone puts forward, you could still agree on the intent. Look for context (what s/he is saying), intent (the underlying emotion) and content. If you are not able to accept the content, you will appreciate the intent and that creates more openness in the other person,” says Babu.
Use the “I” language, suggests Prof. Ranganathan. “‘This idea is stupid’ is obviously not the smartest way to put it. Take ownership that what you are expressing is just your point of view. Say things like, ‘I don’t think it will work’, or ‘I feel this can be done in a different way.’ It is important that your questions should come from genuine curiosity,” she says. “Nobody likes judgments camouflaged as questions.”
The famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It could well apply to today’s workplace too:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.”