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February 04, 2013

The Mask: How Not To Be Yourself For Professional Success

A few days ago I attended a fascinating lecture for the WBS module ‘Styles of Coaching and Team Leadership.’ The facilitator focused on how to use Creativity as a Coaching medium to enhance group dynamics, management and leadership abilities. Amongst the prevailing themes was the notion of identity: how can one adjust and adapt their personality for optimum performance at work. One of the media that was alluded to was the use of a mask to help newly appointed managers to progressively practise their assertiveness, before unveiling and releasing it in the world of work. And that’s when I had one of those sigh-releasing a-ha moments

Identity and the Mask

Thinking ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ now, right?! Think again! A couple of months ago I received some formal feedback on a job interview. The main theme of the conversation was centred on my personality. I am – apparently – too confident, so confident that I seem to be wearing a ‘confidence’ mask, disguising covert weaknesses that, heaven forbid, I let out for the world to see! Just in case my linguistic ability or mental capacity prevented me from understanding the meaning of the word ‘mask’ – if anything, I live and work in a country that is not my native one – I was reminded of what masks were in Ancient Greek Drama. (Note to the reader: I painstakingly endured the study of two Greek tragedies and one comedy in Ancient Greek as a secondary school pupil in Athens, so I am pretty well versed with the ceremonial and ritualistic props of my ancestors. Note to self: put that on CV, don’t blame the interviewers for not knowing you know!) The feedback session concluded with the formidable hint (yet tacit invitation) that I explore my propensity to camouflage my true identity behind, indeed, a ‘confidence’ mask!

The notion of Identity

What is ‘identity’ really? Sophocles scornfully celebrated it in Oedipus Rex! Shakespeare triumphantly mocked it in The Merchant of Venice! Martin Guerre shared a marital bed (a wife, to be precise!) with an impostor masquerading as him because identity documentation had – regrettably – not been invented in the 16th century. And don’t even get me started on the Milli Vanilli fiasco! Let’s begin from the basics, then! Identity: ‘the distinguishing character or personality of an individual’, according to Webster dictionary. Key word here: distinguishing. Also note: character, personality.

Personality and Employability

What role can ‘identity’ play in Employability, then? Working for a Careers Advisory Service, I counsel students on how to present themselves in a professional, eloquent and marketable manner to potential employers! When it all boils down to that direct contact, the advice is mainstream: wear that well-pressed suit, polish those shoes, groom your hair, and look pretty and immaculate; use professional language, mirror the interviewer, and consider the tone/style of the company. The mask is acceptable in these terms, right? The ‘Mask’ means adapting your character and personality in a ‘socially acceptable’ manner. Key word here: Acceptable.

But where does personality come into all this in terms of sustaining a job? Is it acceptable that we adapt and adjust? When would that be useful (or even paramount)? And if we are teaching employability, alluding to the new buzz term ‘Career Adaptability’, shouldn’t we be touching upon this topic? And if we should, why aren’t we? And if we are going to, when are we going to?

The Mor[t]al of the Story

Going back to my normative ‘Mask-wearing’ climacteric, my interviewer got it entirely wrong! For the first time in my professional life, I consciously chose to remove all masks and be my confident, spirited, passionate self! In fact, my interlocutor got it so wrong, it was right: the sensationalist insinuation (sentiently or not I dare not wonder!) was that my culpability for not wearing the ‘Mask’ of the company culture cost me a job! Isn’t it ironic?! If only I had practised what I preach! Which brings me to the acrimonious dilemma: personal integrity or professional survival? What do you do when these two potentially clash? Is a mask acceptable then? I’d say, yes! Are you going to use it? I’d say, why not. But, a word of caution here: do it consciously! Consider what you lose and what you gain because masks, ultimately, are bound to obstruct, hiding you behind a veil of darkness!

To be or not to be yourself?

The great Transcendentalist (and one of my most esteemed teachers throughout the years) Ralph Waldo Emerson once said ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ With the greatest respect to the celebrated Bostonian luminary, I can’t help but question the contemporaneous validity of his most fabled quote. When it comes to personal integrity, Emerson could not have been more apposite. When it comes to professional survival, however, I wish my Employability training had included the workshop ‘Personality and Adaptability at Work’! Oh how I wish it had!

Stay positive!


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