How Much Personality Should You Bring to the Office?

Show your true colors—but show sound judgment even more.

By + More

Michael Wade
A true challenge in the workplace is learning how much of our real personality can be revealed without producing serious career damage. This should not imply that our genuine nature is defective, of course, but who among us would not benefit from Tongue-Biting 101?

Employees rightly assume that while management might talk about embracing diversity, acting like rebels, and thinking outside of whatever geometric shape is the latest rage, none of those activities are without limits. Visit your organization's fringe offices and you'll probably meet a lot of eccentrics, some of whom earned that label by speaking their minds. There is a fine line between the genius and the crank, and sometimes no line at all.

At the same time, employees who adopt an ultra-cautious approach risk hiding the very talents and characteristics that make them distinctive. Upper management favors talent that is the equivalent of a safe sports car—jazzy, but within conventional boundaries.

How do you determine the boundaries? Study the successful mavericks in your organization. Learn what rules they flaunted and the ones they quietly respected. Find out about their mentors and allies. Pinpoint what made them appealing and note the types of jobs they've held. (Tolerance for the distinctive can vary enormously depending upon the job responsibilities. Accountants may be wild and crazy outside of the office, but in their line of work, boring equals reliable.)

In other words, you don't need to become a bland drone. Some sparkle is appreciated. There is a difference, however, between being colorfully competent and being so far out that your judgment is questioned. Part of sound judgment involves understanding what works and what backfires.

Michael Wade writes, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.