Do you wear a mask at work?

Learn how to unmask and embrace your true self in three unique steps designed by workplace wellbeing expert Michelle McQuaid

Man removing his mask

When you get dressed for work each morning, do you feel like you’re leaving parts of your true self behind? The truth is in order to be accepted by others, many of us adapt to our environments like chameleons do and we act in certain ways around our bosses or tell people what we think they want to hear, so that we’ll be accepted. Instead of being ourselves, we’re constantly wearing a different mask so we can fit in and be accepted.

Personally, I spent almost a decade of my career putting on the mask of a tough, task-focussed business leader who would achieve success no matter what the cost. I wore power suits complete with spiky high heels; I marched single-mindedly through our offices; I had no time for small talk. I wasn’t quite Meryl Streep’s steely cold portrayal of a boss in The Devil Wears Prada, but I wasn’t far off.

Why wear a mask?

Wearing a mask made me feel brave, when underneath I was filled with constant fear and anxiety about delivering ever-higher results. It made me safe, because it looked like I didn’t care if I was liked or not. And when I looked for successful role models in the large global organisation where I worked, they all appeared to be wearing the same mask.

Whilst wearing a mask to work sometimes feels like the safest option, it’s impossible to sustain in the long term

For a while, the mask worked perfectly. My team members were so frightened they worked overtime to deliver results. As my successes notched up, I continued to be promoted and feted with bonuses. It seemed like the sky was the limit—until the stress of constantly pretending to be someone I wasn’t started to make it harder and harder each morning to get out of bed.

Let’s be honest. Whilst wearing a mask to work sometimes feels like the safest option, it’s impossible to sustain in the long term. Whether you’re wearing a scary mask, a smiling mask, or the mask of a clown, pretending to be someone you are not is exhausting and wears you out intellectually, psychologically, socially and physically. And by leaving authentic parts of yourself at home it makes it impossible for others to see and value the potential that truly radiates from within you.

How can you remove the mask?

Put your strengths to work

You can boost your levels of authenticity at work by getting clear on what your character strengths [the things you’re good at and enjoy doing] are and how these are valued at work. Aligned with values you hold dear, these are the things you’ll do regardless if anyone pays you or recognises you for them. They are what make you feel alive and authentic.

To understand how your strengths are already valued in your workplace, think about the times when you’ve felt engaged, energised and valued at work. I guarantee in these moments one or more of your strengths are at play. Then start looking for ways to create more of these authentic moments as you go about your job.

Challenge your beliefs

We all hear those little voices chattering away in our heads saying “you’re not really good enough”, “something bad will happen, and you won’t be able to cope” or “you’re going to get hurt.” In an attempt to make sense of the 11 million pieces of information flying at you daily, your brain is constantly creating stories to understand why things are happening and what will happen next. The challenge is, although sometimes these stories are completely accurate, most of the time they’re not.

Take small steps outside your comfort zone, at least once a day, by experimenting with different ways to be more authentic

Next time you hear these voices chattering away, take note of what’s triggering them off, what they’re saying and what mask it makes you want to put on. Then ask yourself, “Is this true? Is this the only explanation for why this happened and what might happen next?” Then try to generate at least three plausible explanations and invest your focus in the story that allows you to show up most genuinely. If necessary, try talking back to yourself as you go through this process in the same manner as you would a friend who was filled with self-doubt.

Try taking action without a mask

Take small steps outside your comfort zone, at least once a day, by experimenting with different ways to be more authentic as you go about your work. Start with small challenges that improve your confidence. If it’s not well received, think about how you can try it differently the next time, and then try again. If it works well, set the next challenge for yourself and keep stretching yourself to spend more and more time each day being as authentic as you can.

If these steps feel overwhelming, then try to shift your focus on how taking off your mask might benefit others. For many of us it’s easier to try new behaviour that we feel helps someone else, than it is to do it for our own benefit.

What are the benefits of removing the mask?

When I finally took off my work mask and started showing up as myself, I discovered that allowing myself to be authentic at work came with incredible rewards. Much of my fear and anxiety melted away because I was no longer afraid to let people see that I didn’t have it all figured out and was still learning, just like everybody else. Accepting that I liked to feel connected to others, I found that succeeding at work became much easier when people wanted to help you. When I started looking for role models for authentic living in my workplace, I found these leaders to be flourishing in their work and in their personal lives. And eventually I did as well.

What might you actually be able to achieve if you took off your mask?

This was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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