How to be authentic at work without losing credibility

“I was a fearful child. I’ve been a fearful man. I’ve rarely felt worthy…” This email from a very successful coach went on and on, using over 1,100 words (yes, I did a word count) to spell out his failures and fears. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated his candor; we need more emotion in leadership. But my whole body cringed and I caught myself thinking: geez, man, get it together already! By the time he got to the point of how he’s overcoming these fears daily, he’d lost some credibility with me. Each time I get an email from him now, I think, “Oh, that’s the fearful coach.”

“I don’t want to come across as a needy bitch,” my client moaned on a recent coaching call. Her strategy group is severely understaffed, and she’s working nights and weekends to compensate. Balls are dropping, but she can’t ask for help. She’s the only female on the leadership team; if she asks for help, she reasons, she’ll be perceived as weak and unable to do her job. In failing to be clear about what she can realistically take on, she loses credibility both with herself and everyone else she works with.

He’s an over-sharer, spilling emotions like verbal vomit. She’s the opposite, stuffing it all inside. He’s overly concerned with himself without considering the listener; she’s overly concerned with the listener at the expense of herself.

Both want to be authentic and true to themselves, but haven’t found the right balance.

What’s the third way?

Instead of waffling between two extremes — either full transparency or none at all — I like to ask “what’s the third way here?” Yes, authenticity is about allowing others to see what’s under the mask… but that doesn’t always mean transparency across the board. We have choices on how authenticity shows up; like dials on a stereo, we have more options than volume at our disposal. When it comes to emotions, translucency usually trumps transparency at work. But when it comes to identity and being true to oneself, full transparency rules… and this requires the hard inner work of self-acceptance and love.

  1. Be translucent, not transparent, when it comes to emotions.

Translucency is about revealing our humanity without pointing out the hair growing out of the wart. Emotional vulnerability is potent stuff: we need to know the right dosage. What’s the right amount? That depends on the emotional comfort level of both ourselves and our listeners.

Instead of hiding or gut-spilling, it’s helpful to explore the intersection between ME and THEY… which, of course, is WE.

  • ME: What am I feeling right now? What do I need? This self-listening and self-validating step helps ground us in our truth.
  • THEY: How do they (peers, team, partner, etc.) feel now? How do they want to feel? How comfortable are they with emotion? What do they need from me? These answers come from empathy and deep listening.
  • WE: Within the context of our shared humanity, what’s my role as a leader in moving us towards our collective desired state? What’s one story I can tell that establishes a human connection? What do I say to establish trust?

In the coach’s case, he’s feeling fearful, and that’s ok: it’s a universal emotion. But without the moderating factor of how his readers want to feel — a sense of trust and confidence that he’s got fear under control — these overly transparent revelations can undermine that confidence. Just a simple acknowledgement of shared humanity — “hey, I feel fear too, and sometimes it’s paralyzing, but here’s what I’m doing about it” can go a long way.

Conversely, in the case of my client who is fearful of being judged if she asks for help, neither she nor her boss is comfortable with emotion. He’s the type who would perceive asking for help as a weakness. But she can connect on shared goals and values (like quality work), perhaps telling a story about how that goal or value was threatened because of inadequate resources; as a former wise boss used to counsel me, “get their head(s) nodding first.” She can then lay out several options based on resource availability. No vulnerability necessary.

2. Self-love paves the way for transparency of identity

Full transparency of emotion is optional, but transparency of identity — who we are as unique human beings — is not. The latter takes more work and self-understanding, but it‘s the only way we can confidently bring our whole selves to work. And by starting here, deep within ourselves, skillful management of emotion emerges as a byproduct.

The more vulnerable we are with ourselves, the easier it is to reveal our truth with others. When we’re deeply familiar and accepting of our own foibles, warts and insecurities — when we finally accept that they probably aren’t going anywhere, and lay down our defensiveness — that’s when magic happens.

In my case, it took years of meditation, and eventually exiting the business environment entirely in order to know myself better. What took longest to reconcile was the fact that my brain works differently that most: I have a neurodiverse brain, can easily get overwhelmed, am somewhat blind to hints and reading between the lines, and I don’t solve problems the typical way. But I’m a pattern-matching machine, deeply intuitive, and much better 1:1 than in groups. These are facts about myself, and the faster I accept them and stop trying to be someone I’m not, the more easily I can create a life and career that works for me and everyone around me.

It also makes it much easier to be transparent about my strengths and weaknesses; self-acceptance creates an environment where I really don’t care what you think. Sharing truths that we’ve integrated and metabolized within our identities comes from a place of confidence mixed with gentleness… an inner core strength that doesn’t need to be covered in armor or masks.

Vulnerability from self-acceptance feels qualitatively different than vulnerability as nakedness, which admittedly is not how any of us want to feel at work. Instead, it’s a reveal of love… love of self, of the other, of humanity. And if your work environment isn’t accepting of your truth, perhaps it’s simply time for you to find (or better yet, create) an environment that’s a better fit. No one can accept your reality until they accept their own.

When you’re able to tap into this source of authentic power, nearly anything you say is the right and credible thing to say. Emotions become easier to share. You develop a grounded presence that’s felt and trusted by others. This is the root of authentic leadership.

PS. Big visions need deep roots. If you’d like to create a more human future of work starting with yourself, let’s talk. I work with rebel entrepreneurs, aspiring founders, and game-changing leaders who think different.

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