Don’t Become Someone You’re Not to Get Ahead

Changing aspects of yourself to get ahead at work can be tricky — especially when it feels like you need to become someone you’re not to get promoted. Use this model to help guide your development in an authentic way.

Change can be good for you

Over the course of your career, it’s inevitable you’ll find yourself needing to change certain aspects of yourself to get ahead at work. Aspects that are preventing you from developing the abilities essential to get promoted. 

Often these changes are good for you—like learning to reign in your emotions to show composure during times of stress. They can also be necessary to push you outside your comfort zone. For example, overcoming your fear of public speaking to become a competent presenter.

And sometimes there are degrees of adaption needed to meet others’ expectations. Like, if your boss thinks you need to be a stronger negotiator to move up to the next level, you’ll likely begin honing your skills in short order.

In each of these examples, you’re building up new skillsets: gaining self-control, becoming a better communicator and a stronger negotiator. 

But change can also be tricky when it feels like you need to become someone you’re not.

But altering aspects of yourself to get ahead at work can be a delicate balance, especially if the change is more about adapting your personal style than developing new skills. The degree of change can’t be a complete turn from who you genuinely are as a person. You don’t want to become someone you’re not. 

What if your manager believes golfing with clients is an essential part the job—do you pick up the clubs and learn the game? Or expects you to be available after hours and on weekends—will you take her calls and respond to emails? Or, maybe the big boss expects leaders to dress up for work—are you willing to upgrade your wardrobe to get promoted?

It’s important to set boundaries and make mindful choices. Consciously choose where you will adapt and grow, and where you won’t. Only you can decide what feels acceptable for you — so you don’t become someone you’re not.

A model to help you decide for yourself.

An approach that helps me make mindful choices is to first call-out advice for what it is. In this case, what kind of advice am I receiving? Is it about adapting my personal style or developing professional skills?

Here’s a model I use to help differentiate between the two:

Skills or Style

Be real, and make mindful choices

Once you understand the nature of a specific change, then you can
decide for yourself what makes sense to do to get ahead at work.

For me, developing new skills feels like I’m becoming a better version of myself—this is where I want to spend most of my time. This is when I’m getting outside my comfort zone, and into my growth zone.

Whereas adapting my personal style, if taken too far, feels like I’m becoming less like myself. I’m not just outside my comfort zone, I may be headed to the twilight zone.

You want to be careful not to spend too much time adapting your personal style, especially at the expense of developing substantial skills. It’s important to strike the right balance.

The more a specific change seems to be in opposition with your inner voice, or makes you feel uneasy, the more thoughtful you’ll want to be with your response and course of action.  

By the way, the examples I used above were personal ones for me. I rejected my boss’ advice to play golf with clients (which is ironic as I now love to swing the sticks!). But I often deployed a strategy of fine dining to strengthen customer relationships, which worked just as well smile. And I did accept the expectation to work on weekends, in return for freedom during the work week to come in late, leave early, take mid-day personal appointments, etc. 

Remember, there’s usually an opportunity to reset expectations too. But that’s a topic for another day.


What about you? Have you ever felt like you had to become someone you’re not to get ahead at work? How did you handle it? Please share in the comments below.