“We shift ourselves not in sweeping pivots, but in movements so tiny that they are hardly perceptible, even in our view. Years pass before we finally discover that, after handing over our power piece by piece, we no longer even look like ourselves.”

Alicia Keys


Very early in my leadership career, my ‘bible’ was the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.

Looking back, I cringe.

At the time, I was convinced that the fastest way to get the corner office was to behave and look like a man.

Every morning I scraped my hair back into a tight bun. I wore only collared shirts and tailored pants to work. I was quick to dish-out well-meaning, but completely misguided advice to younger female colleagues – suggesting that to be taken seriously they needed to reconsider wearing their hair down or applying lipstick in public and that big dangly earrings were potentially career-limiting.

I feel deeply sorry for my former self and for the former female colleagues I may have misled.

Not only was my understanding of success completely corrupted by my conditioning (being a man-impersonating-woman sitting in a corner office now feels more like a nightmare than a dream), so was my thinking around how to be ‘successful’.

Today, I understand how uplifting it is to express my zest and playfulness through my wardrobe.

I love wearing bright, bold colours with a touch of sparkle.

Instead of my wardrobe being part of my armoury, today, my clothes celebrate the truth of who I am.

Given the many invisible forces that influence us at work and in life, it is easy to conform, little by little, only to suddenly realise one day that we no longer remember who we really are or what we really believe anymore.

We conform in ways that are small and subtle, but over time, our choices accumulate.

The world of work can encourage us to squeeze ourselves into small spaces where it thinks we best fit.

Over time we can begin to believe we should fit, even when deep down, we feel like a chunky square peg being jammed into a small round hole.

Conforming happens little by little, driven by our desire to fit in or by internalising other people’s incomplete and inaccurate assessment of our potential.

We conform when we mould ourselves to the expectations of others or to perceived ‘ideals’ that we buy into.

We conform in an attempt to belong.

And as humans we have a fundamental need to belong. At times, of course, we must conform in order to maintain a peaceful and civil society – but so often our choice to conform is one that stifles our potential.

The small spaces we squeeze ourselves into can take many forms. Perhaps we crunch ourselves down to squeeze into the footsteps  of our parents.

Maybe we override our individual sense of style to comply with the dress code deemed to be ‘business appropriate’ by the powers-that-be in our organisation.

Perhaps we become conditioned to prioritise the list of values espoused by our organisation over our own core values.

Perhaps we limit our potential at work  to the contents of our two-page job description.

Maybe we feel forced to comply with our company’s preferred work hours or work location.

Perhaps we dare not expand our sphere of influence to a level that exceeds the shadow of our insecure manager.

Perhaps the ‘us and them’ office politics means that we suppress our desire to connect and collaborate with others.

Or perhaps we crunch down our yearning to do big, meaningful work in the world to conform with society’s expectations for parents to maintain lives that tightly orbit the lives of their children.

For those of us who work for organisations, perhaps it is a drive for simplicity that can lead to the loss of our individuality.

In Nine Lies about Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, Marcus Buckingham shares this observation: “Large organisations are complex places and a strong and understandable instinct of their leaders is to seek simplicity and order… But the desire for simplicity easily shades into a desire for conformity, and before long this conformity threatens to extinguish individuality. Before we know it, the particular talents and interests of each person are seen as an inconvenience, and the organisation treats people as essentially interchangeable.”

The problem is that our decisions to conform can become our default setting, and therefore go untested and unchecked. This is when suffering can occur and the personal costs mount.

Whenever we allow any external constraining factors to suppress the expression of our uniqueness and potential, without challenge, we are doing ourselves (and the world) a great disservice.

Cultivating a self-fidelity practice empowers us to break free of oppressive and unnecessary conformity.

If you are on the path from self-betrayal to self-fidelity and might benefit from a little guidance and support to figure how to be true to yourself at work, click here to see how I can help.