When I first decided roughly three years ago that I saw my career in the Financial Services sector, the response from many around me was lukewarm.  My prior work experiences had been predominantly in the Creative Industries, where you have a range of dynamic, colourful personalities. There wasn’t really a mould to fit into; everyone bought their talent and themselves to work. The general perception of people that worked in Finance was that people were relatively old, much more conservative, and middle class.  As a result, people were telling me “you’ll need to tone it down a bit”, “you’re going to have to fit their world now” “no more talking about attending bashment raves”. Basically I was advised to not be my true self. I remember thinking damn, if I can’t be myself then I don’t really want this, regardless of how prestigious the firm was, how good the pay, how great it would look on my CV. Spending 10-12 hours a day pretending to be someone else just didn’t appeal to me.  But I decided to go for it anyway, and applied for an internship for an Investment Bank in Canary Wharf. I managed to get through the application phase and was invited to an assessment centre.

I remember we were set the task of a 5 minute presentation on something that we were really passionate about. Being a diversified group, I remember one guy spoke about his favourite book The Great Gatsby, another girl spoke about what she learnt from presenting on Korean TV, and someone else spoke on their Gap year adventure. I did my presentation on my love for Grime. I remember the looks of confusion on people’s faces from the assessor to the other candidates (blatantly they were thinking wtf is grime lol) but the more I continued to speak, I saw smiles, received a few laughs. Then to round it off, I did the ultimate Rene thing (looking back it was soooo cringe of me *cries*) but I made up a freestyle about the bank, circling the room as I did it (imagine Fire in the Booth meets Canary Wharf).  The moment I was finished, the room suddenly erupted; everyone was on their feet, cheering and clapping. The assessor came up to me at lunch as said quite frankly she had never seen a presentation like that and throughout the day, word got around, with everyone congratulating me. I’ll never forget this moment because it was the first time I realised how it important it was for me to be myself and not feel like I had to put up this pretence for others.  It was like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, because I knew that if they did offer me the internship (they did!!), they knew exactly the type of person they were employing and had accepted that. If they didn’t, that was ok too, because it meant that environment was not the fit for me as a person, so I would continue to find one that was.

Why we put on masks?

This positive experience led me to question why we wouldn’t be our authentic selves in the work environment. What many of us tend to do, in psychological terms is create masks to help us engage with others in a variety of situations. This concept has been explored by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who explains that masks are different personas that we adopt to fit in with the environment and represent the variety of roles we play in society. These masks act as a protective layer, a type of survival mechanism. Models such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explain why we would do this. Once we have satisfied our health and safety needs, we then look to fulfil the third level, our need for love and belonging.  Our desire to fit in and belong becomes more important than the esteem and self-actualisation needs that come after.

Of course in the work environment, depending on the situation we are in, sometimes we adopt these personas because for whatever reason we think it’s so much easier to be THAT person than actually ourselves, something we are all guilty of. However is this something we should do all the time? In the short term it may seem like the best approach but long term, it can be quite damaging. Research has shown that wearing a mask in the work environment can hinder the relationship building process, as those around us can actually detect signs of inconsistency in our behaviours hence leading them to mistrust us. In addition it can be extremely stressful and tiring, constantly switching between masks.

There are those who argue that we should be weary of being our authentic selves in the working environment. In the Harvard Business Review article ‘Be Yourself, but carefully’, Lisa Rosh and Lynn Offermann explain “ honest sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences at work is a double-edged sword: Despite its potential benefits, self-disclosure can backfire if it’s hastily conceived, poorly timed, or inconsistent with cultural or organisational norms—hurting your reputation, alienating employees, fostering distrust, and hindering teamwork.” Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a time and a place. When my manager asks what I’m listening to, my default is always Ed Sheeran / Tinie Tempah (these times I’m blasting   Vybz Kartel, Benz Punani). But knowing when it’s appropriate to talk about / reveal certain things shouldn’t mean we can’t be ourselves. I have seen great benefits in my own work life of just being me around my colleagues:

  • In my current role, being my usual enthusiastic and energetic self really boosted morale in the working environment at a time when the general team mood was low. The summer intern thanked me in his leaving speech for making me people laugh again.
  • My manager overheard me talking with my colleague about my plans to mentor young girls on the weekend and put me forward for this opportunity at work where I get to visit a college and advise A level students on their future career path decisions.
  • Me being so vocal about my love for UK Grime and Rap music has made other people in my team feel comfortable to share their own interests. My department head is the biggest D Double E and Tempa T fan, and nobody knew this until I started. Now he comes up to me all the time, recommending me songs and videos to watch.
  • Most people in my team have never tasted Caribbean food in their life, but became super interested after they saw me bringing in my containers of food from home. Because of this, they did some research and found a Caribbean takeaway around the corner from our offices and now my whole team eat there at least twice a week! Some people in my team even have their own bottle of hot pepper sauce on their desk!!

These are all rather small examples and they may seem rather silly but my point is that being yourself is so much bigger than you.  Sharing your interests, hobbies, elements of your culture, the things that make you YOU can have such a positive impact on your team and your relationship with them. I’m not saying it will be like this straight away, it took me a few months to come out of my shell and really get a feel for the environment I was in, but bit by bit I revealed more about myself and I found that it has generally made me happier, I’m excited to come into work, the work I’m producing is off a higher quality and more opportunities have come my way. Mike MacIsaac summed it up perfectly in his Linkedin Article , “If you are a piano, don’t try to be a violin. Be the true instrument that you are because it produces a beautiful and unique sound that is well needed within your organisation.” Amen!!!


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