You, your personality, your work, and the workplace. Nowadays, with inclusivity being thrown around the office, you should be able to be yourself at work, right? Because it is not about people liking you but your productivity and the quality of your performance – right? But, if you can’t be yourself, is it even worth working at that particular firm or corporation day in, day out?


Maybe we should ask Polonius (or Shakespeare) how sound his advice to Laertes really was, “To thine own self be true.” Or, maybe he meant to say ‘know yourself, but don’t show yourself.’


Roni Mermelshtine, for Totaljobs, credits the martial arts master and actor Bruce Lee with saying, “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.” (But Bruce Lee could just karate chop anyone who was being mean or unfair, right?)


Where does Lee’s advice leave us in the workplace? Potentially exposed.


Personality testing


The interview isn’t enough for your employer to get to know you, so some workplaces spend some real money to ‘get to know you’ (to get the best or the most from you, and to sidestep potential landmines with bad hires) through personality and psychological tests, such as Myers-Briggs and Hogan tests.


Myers-Briggs concentrates on five key areas.


These key indicators, laid out by Psychology Today, are:


HEXACO, another such test, adds another element to its analysis – the honesty-humility factor – to test your moral compass.


But does your employer really want to know who you are in comparison/contrast to them and the team? Are you and your boss simpatico, and by virtue, the organisation? (Are you going to fit in seamlessly with Bob from Accounting and Jill from Procurement?) Or is your boss afraid you might kick off and cause some office mayhem?


Personality unlocks success


Hubspot says your personality is a key factor for predicting success and satisfaction in the job. The article points out that the idea of using personality assessments to make predictions about job performance has been around since the 1950s, but the breakthrough in this particular field didn’t come until the 1990s with meta-analytic research.


Which, the Head of Science at The Predictive Index, Dr Greg Barnett, says, “It was the first time that research showed that certain characteristics really mattered for predicting job performance.”

But should it be used as a recruitment tool? A personality that doesn’t complement the boss/team members on paper equals no job for you?


What are the potential legal implications of this – anything discriminatory? Does it simply depend on recruitment strategy – does HR have carte blanche? Do equal opportunity employers use such tools? It could end up looking like a personality contest – is that what should win you a role, over your education, skills, and experience?


Perhaps there is a gender split on who can be and who can’t be themselves, or maybe it is a generational thing? Either way, it doesn’t seem equitable in these terms.


‘Covering’ and assimilation tactics


Mermelshtine notes that in 1963, a sociologist, Erving Goffman coined the term ‘covering’ meaning to change your personality, how you look and communicate, to manage your self-presentation and thereby ‘assimilate’ into a particular culture and avoid becoming one of the social pariahs or unfortunates in a group.


If you think about it, personality assessments are an assimilation tool and covering may look like self-mutilation to fit in. With inclusion being such an ‘in’ word, why is assimilation still being pushed on us over individuality?


Finding greatness in a team is not achieved by extinguishing the light; it’s about letting individuals spark so each one can contribute to the flame, and then it’s about harnessing the shining beacon’s intensity.


According to Forbes, ‘assimilation is the legacy of standardisation’ (boom!), and anthropologist Scott Lacy refers to diversity as “the dynamism of difference’, when discussing standardisation versus personalisation. He says another term for assimilation is ‘performative diversity’ – the way we are expected to act – but not think. ‘Cognitive diversity’ should never be assimilated.


For a workplace to demand we all think alike would be enforcing or performing a kind of brainwashing or frontal lobe lobotomy. Reconstructing the way individuals think naturally to force sameness is not inclusion. Neither is someone dictating a policy where inclusion has been ignored.


Terri Fontenot, Chief Executive Officer Emeritus, Woman’s Hospital, was a panellist for the Leadership in the Age of Personalization Summit. She says that a select, ‘homogeneous’ few (the opposite of inclusion) cannot produce the best decision-making process.


Just be yourself


So, how does the advice ‘just be yourself’ equate to the workplace? Is this sound guidance when it comes to the clothing you choose or your appearance? What about the language you use and your demeanour? The term NSFW (Not safe/suitable for work) comes to mind here, and yet in some workplaces, the lines get blurred. And what about the personal touch for your office space? How many little bobblehead cats and dogs, solar-powered dancing coke cans and flowers, pot plants, or printed-out memes are acceptable on your desk?


Sometimes, the company culture will be well-defined and easy to read; sometimes, you’ll face learning it through a quiet word by your manager. It might be best to play it cool until you know what the lines are. And sometimes, look at who is giving you the advice to be yourself? Does it come from the real world, the one that you live in?


Or should you ignore that advice and create a work persona instead – not like Dr Ross Geller in the Friends episode when he adopts a fake British accent to teach a university class (cringe) – but one that is adapted after researching the company, its culture, Facebook page banter, and online message boards, etc? Maybe we all do this to some extent – something that’s naturally done during the unnatural recruitment process of application, interview (when you have to shamelessly self-promote) and during onboarding, and maybe even through your probation period (for self-preservation – But at some point, you’re going to want to breathe, let your hair down, and be yourself.


Adaptability versus authenticity


But what if it’s not in your best interest and you feel it’s unsafe to be yourself? Charles Darwin never said ‘just be yourself.’ No, he suggested that you be the most adaptable if you want to survive. So is it okay or natural to adapt your personality as required, channelling the chameleon’s abilities to blend in? For some personalities, this is not achievable, especially for those who have a strong sense of self or principle. (Remember though, you can’t bank or eat a principle.)


Professor Herminia Ibarra, an expert in organisational behaviour and leadership at London Business School and Insead in France, looks at it this way, “A very simple definition [of authenticity] is being true to self. But self could be who I am today, who I’ve always been or who I might be tomorrow.” She teaches us that it is not only okay to be adaptable, it’s advisable, because sometimes the strategy that has helped you in one role may fail you in the next. (BBC Worklife)



The bottom line


No matter what your personality, if you got the job, then you must have something to offer. A good manager will learn what personalities make up their team and find each person’s strengths and weaknesses. Your manager should be able to increase your performance based on those findings. After all, this is the main function of their role.


Your role is to do your best without compromising who you are, but you don’t necessarily have to brandish your whole personality in the office. Let yourself come out naturally, but keep something of yourself for yourself and your personal life.