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  • Teresa Carey

The Masks We Wear

This is the time of year we can be anything we want to be - at least for that one festive party or night when we celebrate Halloween. If you’re really into the holiday, it may even be possible to extend the benefit of the effort that went into the costume for more than one event. Let’s admit it, it can be fun to dress up and adopt a different persona.


Yet in the workplace, not being who we are creates consequences. While a temporary mask might allow us to morph into what we feel is needed for a specific situation or the people involved to solve a temporary need, the overall downside and its implications can be scary. Wearing a figurative costume or mask can cause confusion, erode trust, and interfere with the integrity of our leadership brand.


Research performed by Kouchaki, Ebrahimi and Patrick at the Kellogg School of Management suggests that “enabling people to bring their whole selves to work endows them with a greater sense of authenticity that ultimately leads to more ethical behavior, reducing business risk.”


Consider this - the largest segment of the workforce is Millennial, weighing in at 35% of the total. Millennials are intentional about working for and aligning with brands and values that match their own. This translates into their desire to bring their whole selves to their jobs.

If there is fear or shame in bringing who we truly are to the workplace, or saying what we really feel, we play the game of pretense. This level of inauthenticity leads to bringing out one or more masks to manage through a meeting, relationship, or project.


What are some of the more common masks we wear? Here are seven masks of pretense I see often:

  • People-Pleasing – This mask promotes harmony and consensus, sometimes at the expense of doing the right thing. It’s usually based on an avoidance of anger, or some other emotion, preempting the team’s ability to work through conflict in a healthy way.

  • Placating – With this façade, we make up for missed expectations by substituting a second solution. One reason for this mask is we may be afraid to say we don’t know, or, we haven’t bought in to what was agreed upon as the ideal outcome.

  • Paranoia – Driven by insecurity, we choose to operate from a place of FEAR – False Evidence Appearing Real. This leads to side stepping or complete avoidance.

  • Procrastination – When we wear this mask, we kick the can in an attempt to unnecessarily offer a superior outcome later. We’re always buying time. It can also stem from hiding our lack of understanding or ability to bring something to the next stage or completion.

  • Passive Aggression – When we don’t feel safe enough to state how we really feel, we may redirect our words or actions through silence, stonewalling, humor, or sarcasm.

  • Pushing – Micromanaging or over-controlling emerges when the stakes are higher. The goal is to oversee every detail or potential derailer in an effort to make sure it goes the way we want.

  • Perfection – Overachieving can distract us from dealing with other priorities as well as help us gain favor and acceptance. Or we may do the opposite by putting ourselves down to lower the expected standard or to acknowledge our lack of attainment.


How do we stop relying on masks?

  1. Acknowledge which masks you or your team members typically default to using. What is or isn’t being communicated that prompts their use? After you’ve identified your own go-to mask, vulnerably share it with others. Performance-manage and coach when you see others using masks.

  2. Reground yourself in your values, purpose, and brand. Model for others the courageousness required for congruency in being true to yourself. How does misalignment between who you genuinely are and the mask you put on confuse others? How does it disrupt progress, as well as trust and relational connectivity?

  3. Ask an accountability partner, mentor, or peer group for accountability. Being real starts with becoming more real. Share your struggles and ask for help.


When you learn to live and work without a mask, the freedom felt from being authentic won’t ever let you put on the mask again.

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