Workplace Authenticity & The 3 Things Necessary to Achieve It

Olivia Gaughran
6 min readFeb 14, 2019
Credit: Pixabay

I have been struggling recently with non-authentic conversations.

The past year has been a really incredible time for working hard at maintaining authenticity in everything I do — especially as I transitioned into new workplaces. Trying to balance authenticity at work without letting my personal life flood into my job was a challenge. Frankie & Jo’s, the King County prosecuting attorney’s office, housing & residence life, and the writing center were all new and exciting opportunities to more fully develop my professional identity — but there were parts of my personal life that completely steamrolled me throughout the year. I had to figure out how to manage those two parts of me until I could feel like I wasn’t split into fragments of a person — a work person, a home person, a student person, a female person, a family person, etc. How do you get out of bed and go to work authentically when you feel like you just want to cry? Is it even possible to leave your personal life at the door when work is really the only place that doesn’t seem to be crashing down around you — or what if it is also contributing to the chaos and stress? Can you be authentic at work by being honest about your emotions without sacrificing professionalism? These are the questions that were on my mind this past year.

I did a lot of working, and I did a lot of feeling, and I had to figure out how to do both at the same time.

I have been extremely lucky in that most of my supervisors have been advocates for personal authenticity in a professional place, and I’ve found that I actually perform better at my jobs when I’m being real about where I’m at emotionally. As a resident assistant, being authentic is a product of our self-improvement and actually means that we are doing our job really well — because when we are honoring ourselves, we can honor others better, too. Frankie & Jo’s was harder. The entire environment there is oozing with happiness and comfort, which made me feel as though I couldn’t emotionally handle my job when I felt really, truly sad; I felt like I wasn’t doing my best if I wasn’t also oozing joy. The really beautiful thing that I discovered was that if I let myself be “neutral” — not quite overjoyed, but not wallowing in negativity either, I could let the energy of the warmly lit ice cream shop pervade itself into my consciousness and eventually feel better — I could ride the wave until closing time when I could head home happier than when I arrived.

I had to figure out that it doesn’t serve me to have superficial, non-authentic energy at work and in life, and the same goes for non-authentic conversations. It doesn’t make me fulfilled, happy, or content when I bring inauthentic energy into my workplace. However, there is also a level of performance expected at work that means the intensity of my authenticity needs to be appropriately maintained. Through a lot of practice and self-intentionality, I can regulate my intensity at work so that I can both be myself and do my job well — and that has been really wonderful.

The second part to this complex configuration of the workplace and authenticity is how to navigate interactions that don’t feel authentic to me because of the other people I interact with — how do we tolerate people who are inauthentic? In other words, how do we have relationships with people who can drive us crazy? We can’t not talk to our coworkers, and we can’t not have relationships with people we don’t always get along with — so what happens when we do have professional and personal relationships to maintain that don’t always bring us authentic joy?

As I strive towards being my most authentic self, I find myself bumping into lower tolerance levels for inauthenticity. It can be frustrating to navigate those conversations because I find that I will eventually hit a point of intolerance and start resorting to old behaviors that I’ve worked really hard to un-learn. When stress excels a level of tolerance, we move into old behaviors and patterns once again. For example, if a coping mechanism you used when you were stressed was getting angry rather than communicating your feelings, you’ll slip into that behavior again when your tolerance level slips.

So, when is that intolerance level for me, and what happens when I pass it? And, can I prepare for it?

First of all, I am a firm believer that tolerance levels for inauthenticity and stress shifts and changes all the time. I would also propose the idea that exhaustion — mental, emotional, and especially physical, is one of the quickest things to make that tolerance disappear. We need enough sleep in order to be kind and compassionate human beings. For me, this manifests itself in different ways — I become apt to take things personally, become more sensitive, respond in a snarky way, gossip as a way of gaslighting connection, or move into codependent behaviors when my tolerance level is low due to stress, lack of sleep, lack of self-care, or other factors that impact my mood. When I feel like that, I have had to really pay attention to my emotional state and be able to remove myself from the conversation or situation that is making me revert to those kinds of behaviors and seek out something different — something that will fulfill me rather than drain me. When I’m able to do that, I can actually maintain my most authentic self while still engaging with the people who can cause this internal emotional reaction and still have a relationship with those who aren’t always that fun to be around.

For example, instead of spending the whole day with someone who makes me feel more stressed than rejuvenated, I can choose to limit our time together to one hour in order to participate in my relationship with that person as my truly authentic self. Rather than slipping into unnecessary gossip or a negative attitude, my tolerance level awareness allows me to set boundaries for myself that deliberately maintain friendships and familial relationships that otherwise make me feel steamrolled over.

From all of this learning and the exploration of myself in the crossroads between the workplace and my personal life (and in conjunction with my therapist’s legendary guidance), I have boiled the system of self-awareness and authenticity necessary to reach this point into three parts.

The first: Name the hurt.

Instead of just saying, “I feel angry and frustrated”, I’ve been working on being more specific. Did I feel excluded, powerless, or unheard? Were there feelings of loneliness, abandonment, or disconnection? Did I feel manipulated or controlled by another person? Usually, the answer is yes.

The second: Why am I hurt?

What words or actions did I hear or see that made me react this way? How have I been taking care of my emotional and mental health? Are there unrealistic expectations at play that I’ve set for myself or for another person?

The third: What do I need instead?

Am I feeling loved or safe? Have I gotten enough sleep recently? Do I need to enforce a boundary or limitation? Do I need to ask for what I need? Does somebody else need to ask me for what they need? What will it take for me to feel better again? Is this expectation realistic?

These three questions apply in many situations. As a quick example, feeling overwhelmed at work and a client just made you want to cry? I’ve been there.

“I felt like that was unfair — I felt scolded, like I was the bad guy for following policy. I’m feeling that way because of her condescending tone of voice and because I’m overwhelmed by the long list of things that I have been asked to do by my boss today. I need to ask a coworker to cover for me for a moment so that I can go take a breather in the back for five minutes.”

As we own our responsibilities and become more willing to be kind, even in disagreement, the way we name our hurt and function in all kinds of friendships and relationships can improve significantly. Devoting ourselves to our own self-improvement will translate into a longer-term sense of satisfaction and contentment, especially in the parts of our lives where we feel most vulnerable — because we all deserve to feel like we can show up and be authentic in all parts of our lives.



Olivia Gaughran

Medical anthropologist, editor, and creator of The Olly Project @! Probably reading bell hooks or taking a long walk.