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Pink Shorts, Open Shirts, and Raw Emotions: are you presenting your authentic self?

In the late 90’s I was running a series or workshops at Unilever Research in Port Sunlight. I was still relatively new in my career as a corporate trainer, but generally a confident presenter having emerged from an earlier acting career.

On this particular day, I wasn’t feeling great. My young daughter was lying in an incubator in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Manchester 40 miles away. She was fighting yet another infection that could have ended the same way as it did for her brother who had died in similar circumstance a few years before. By now we were two months into what was to be a five-month stay in hospital before our daughter finally came home. But we didn’t know that yet.

As I stood there introducing the session, setting out the ground rules about confidentiality, openness, and participation, I could feel myself welling up with emotion. And the effort of suppressing it, I realised, was going to be tougher than giving into it. At that moment, the fear of exposing my rawness and potentially ruining my credibility in front of a group of strangers gave way to my need to just let it out. So, I told the group how I was feeling and why.

Was I laughed at? Were people embarrassed? Did anyone walk out? None of these things happened. Instead, we got though an amazing workshop that turned out to be an incredible experience for us all. Far from making the situation awkward, it brought us together as a group, bound by human understanding and compassion. Far from making me weak and pitiful, my vulnerability so openly displayed, made me strong in their eyes. I didn’t feel strong, but I certainly felt cared for, and it didn’t diminish my credibility. If anything, it enhanced it.

I found myself reflecting on this experience this week after a wonderful meeting with a client who I hadn’t been able to catch up with some time due to Covid restrictions. We had agreed to meet at a café nearby and I had arrived early to secure an outside table. I soon spotted him, walking towards me, right on time. He was wearing a light pastel jersey, knee-length pink shorts, and comfy loafers. He looked amazing. He looked comfortable in his own skin.

Our conversation flowed. It was relaxed, inspiring, and engaging. And we started to discuss the way the pandemic had changed us. He explained that the idea of having a professional work meeting dressed as he was today would have been unthinkable two years ago but now seemed totally right. It was a much more authentic presentation of himself. I resonated with that.

I’d grown my hair and beard longer than was strictly necessary during lockdown. Did anyone care? No. And I ditched the tie, removing them all from my closet. What is the point of them? They are impractical, uncomfortable, and likely to reduce blood flow to the brain. Never mind being a death trap around moving machinery, they are a weapon you give to would-be stranglers! To me the tie is just one outdated feature of the uniform of industry, designed to hide authenticity behind a cloak of conformity. So, I stopped wearing them. And since then, has anyone noticed, raised an eyebrow, spat out their coffee, or complained? No.

These two events, one back in the mid 90’s and the other in 2022 are not unrelated. My client's casual clothing and fancy shorts with my tie’s absence, and that moment of emotional expression at Unilever Research were both examples of opening ourselves up so that people can see who we really are.

We need to get rid of artifice, manicured mannerisms that pass for ‘professionalism’, and bland presentations of ourselves that obscure our uniqueness. How else can we build rapport, connections, and deep understanding? We need to open more doors and let people in, even if some people choose to shut those doors in our faces.

There will always be disapprovers. But if someone chooses to write me off because I’m not wearing a tie or discredit me because I’m wearing pink shorts in a business meeting or look down on me for being ‘too emotional’; that has to be their problem, not mine. It is a sign that they have no interest in seeing beyond the façade, which is actually where the best stuff happens.

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