Self-improvement is rife at this time of year, innit? Positive intent is in the water. Gyms are full. Skin glows. Social media is awash with “New Year, New Me!” posts. Resolutions abound.

It all looks like hard work, if you ask me. Of course some kind souls set themselves meaningful, achievable resolutions, but so many bang a list of unrealistic expectations on the wall then beat themselves up when it doesn’t work out. How might things look if we scrapped the “New Me” concept, and instead went for “Real Me”?

I’m a big believer in authenticity. The word has been tarred somewhat in recent years by sheer virtue of trending so hard, which for me has been akin to that thing where you love a band fiercely then watch them go mainstream. The concept itself remains sound, and I will forever be a staunch advocate for the simple fact that we are our best selves and achieve the best things when we are our real selves. But the surrounding fluff and wankery has reduced ‘authenticity’ to a buzzword for many, an annoyance for more, and sadly detracted from the core truth: We’re better when we’re authentic.

Being authentic means coming from a real place within. It is when our actions and words are continguent with our beliefs and values. It is being ourselves, not an imitation of what we think we should be or have been told we should be. There is no “should” in authentic.

Put that way, it’s pretty simple. Just be yourself. Do what feels right. Follow your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

Just.

Be.

Yourself.

Thing is, like most things in life we know are good for us, it’s easier said than done. I know what a good healthy diet looks like for myself, but I still eat junk. We all do things that we know we probably shouldn’t, or definitely shouldn’t. We know, in this age of mindfulness, diversity and inclusion, that we should be bringing our authentic selves to work. But we don’t, often, and there’s a few different reasons for that.

Every workplace faces its own challenges. In recruitment, I think what makes it especially difficult is that we are the quintessential middle man. Our entire job revolves around delivering other people’s messages that we don’t necessarily agree with. Doing tasks we don’t necessarily believe are beneficial. Our actions are always governed by others, and at times there’s a fundamental misalignment. We’re held accountable to targets, but our entire job relies on other people, and people are notoriously fickle. Unpredictable creatures at the best of times, during a recruitment process where there’s a lot at stake – reputation, income, pride, ambition, hopes, fears, dreams; all the big stuff – that proneness to change one’s mind is amplified.

And actually, all of that “big stuff” is exactly what holds us back from being our authentic selves. After all, how many of you have a “work version” of yourself that’s at least a bit different to the real you?

For the past three or so years, I’ve worked really hard on blurring the lines between Work Tash and Real Tash, and it’s been a journey. I started my recruitment career in August 2014 and it became apparent to me fairly quickly that this is an industry by and large built on bullshit, full of consultants claiming to be market specialists when actually they’d work any role that came their way; saying all the right things about values and loyalty but eating children if it meant winning a role. The most astounding realisation came when cold calling, and I found being straight-up to be such a stunning point of difference that it scored me work. So of course I kept doing that, but the more I did, the more I obsessed over why that was such a massive point of difference. Just being yourself, and being straight-up about what you could or couldn’t do; had or hadn’t done – seemed like the most obvious thing in the world, and yet people weren’t doing it.

Not long after starting recruitment, I began rock climbing, and that proved to be the most fundamentally life-changing processes I’ve ever gone through. Fear of falling is one of the most natural inbuilt fears every single person has, but for me – and, it turns out, many climbers – it went beyond simply the fear of falling. The biggest thing holding me back wasn’t the fear of falling itself, but falling in front of other people. I had a real, inherent terror of what people would think of me for falling – how stupid I would look – especially compared to all of the other climbers around who were so much better.

That relates beautifully to the journey we all face in embracing our authentic selves. So often, it’s fear of how we’ll be perceived, or discomfort in our skin, that makes us keep a mask on.

U.S. leadership expert Mike Robbins published a book in 2009, Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken that is essentially about transforming your life with the power of authenticity. (He’s delivered some excellent TED Talks on the topic, too.) After more than 15 years focusing wholly on this stuff, he found what it really takes to be fulfilled and successful is an ability to bring our whole selves to work. ALL of who we are – all the gifts, the talents, the fears, the doubts, the insecurities; the heart, the soul, everything that matters. But what that means for people and for organisations, is actually a lot of courage. It’s scary sharing that stuff with people. It makes us vulnerable, and it’s uncomfortable to be vulnerable. On a superficial level, we don’t want to look bad. We don’t want people to judge us. We don’t want to risk a fall in front of our peers.

Vulnerablity, though, is the key driver in human trust and connection, and it’s also the birthplace of risk, innovation, change and invention – of everything that’s important to us. That’s super important at work, because when you are being your true self, you come across as being genuinely honest and trustworthy, which makes it easier for colleagues and clients to trust you and build relationships of substance with you. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is invaluable for recruitment, sales or any kind of role that involves stakeholder management.

Authenticity inspires loyalty and engagement, so for anyone in a leadership position or aiming to be – authenticity is key. Think back to your favourite, most inspiring leaders – what’s one quality they all shared? I can just about guarantee it’s that they were REAL.

Google have done a load of work around this as well. Back in 2011, they became focused on building the perfect team and sank years of research and untold millions of dollars into measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. They looked at everything from how frequently people eat together to which traits the best managers share, and for a long time believed that building the best teams simply meant combining the best people. But there were still anomalies, so in 2012 they started an initiative, code-named Project Aristotle, to study hundreds of teams and work out why some performed awesomely and some were just average, even though all were made up of awesome people. Google are good at finding patterns, and despite analysing everything, they couldn’t find a pattern. Gender balance didn’t have an impact. Shared hobbies and interests didn’t have an impact. So they began looking for “group norms” instead, which is the intangible stuff – “unwritten rules” or things described as part of “team culture” – and found overwhelmingly that the key uniting factor was psychological safety. They wanted to implement some clear guidelines around how teams could achieve this, but putting it down in writing was hard because psychological safety first requires comfort in vulnerability, which – spoiler alert – requires authenticity.

So, how do we get there?

Being your authentic self at work is not always as easy as just ‘being yourself’. To be yourself, you must first really know yourself, and more than that, like yourself. So the journey toward authenticity starts with some level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, and even then there is only so far you can take it. The environment around you needs to be conducive toward authenticity too, and honestly, this is one of the biggest things standing in people’s way – company cultures can be restrictive, oppressive, and the total opposite of inspiring. When I was first applying for jobs in recruitment, one agency sent me a dress code pre-first interview that included such nonsensical specificities as “No visible piercings.” As if my nose ring (which at the time was actually a tiny, discreet stud) has any impact on my ability to recruit?

And that’s just one tiny example. There are loads more out there, many far worse. If you find feeling “the ick” when you think about work, it might be time to reassess. Developing your authentic self is a lifelong process, and one that’s much more about mindfulness and constant small changes than any one big drastic action. Think of it like flying a plane – you know what your overall goal is, and the path there is more or less charted out for you. But even with auto-pilot activated and fully functional, you still have to do some work. A commercial pilot will spend the entire flight making small, considered adjustments to stay on course, and so it is for you with life. Stay focused, check in regularly with yourself and your goals, and make small adjustments as necessary.

The payback for us as recruiters and leaders when we get this stuff right is huge – we stop pitching, and we start having conversations. We stop conducting interviews, and simply get to know people. We quit blaming our shitty culture, and start creating a great one.

We might even feel so good about ourselves we don’t need a “new me” – just the real one.

Happy 2019, kids. Make it a good one.

Natasha Foster

Natasha Foster

Recruitment Consultant at New Zealand firm Rice Consulting, shaking things up in the HR world. Photographer on the side, Te Reo student, rock climber and learner surfer. Most happy off the grid.

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