Halloween isn’t the only time people wear masks. Year round, people wear “psychological” masks at work – adopting different personas to fit their particular “part” in the workplace.
Geraldine Brooks, a Vancouver-based Jungian psychologist, says, “People usually wear a mask corresponding to their work role. That’s because all work roles come with certain social expectations”.
For example, senior managers may wish to appear calm, authoritative or in control. Customer-service personnel may want to seem friendly, personable and approachable.
Carl Jung, originator of the theory behind psychological masks, concluded people put on a particular “face” to relate to the world and that people might wear many different personas in a lifetime. Individuals wear work personas (a responsible employee), social personas (a loyal friend) and family personas (a loving father or spouse).
Your role at work will govern the type of mask you wear. But does this mean we all act out roles that have little to do with who we really are?
Dr. Brooks says we all need masks to function in the world and deal with the demands placed on us by others. “If we didn’t have masks, we wouldn’t know how to act”, she said in an interview.
Masks can be helpful at work, especially if an individual is going through a personal difficulty. Being able to maintain a sense of purpose and accomplishment at work by playing one’s part, even when grieving a loss, for example, can give an employee temporary relief from tumultuous feelings.
Workers who are asked to perform what psychologists call “emotional labour”– acting friendly and happy, for instance — find that wearing a “friendly, happy mask” may be helpful or difficult depending on the circumstances. For instance, a fast-food drive-through clerk may find the “friendly” mask daunting when up against a disgruntled customer. Yet seeming pleasant with the next customer helps that employee stay in a good mood for the rest of the shift, despite the earlier incident.
Masks also protect the worker’s personal boundaries and privacy, disguising problems that could interfere with the task at hand.
Masks are not unhealthy or false but can become a problem if the individual identifies too strongly with them: if a professor turns family mealtime into a student lecture, he or she may alienate others with the “knowledgeable professor mask”.
When someone doesn’t allow other aspects of him self to be known or dons a mask to pretend to be someone he isn’t, that’s unhealthy. If a manager believes she must always remain authoritative and in control she can come under great stress by suppressing any confusion or doubt she might feel.
Over time, the adoption of a “false self” can take its toll, isolating the wearer from support and understanding. If the difference between your true experience and the mask you wear is too great, (you frequently feel impatient with small children and you are an elementary school teacher, and the mask you’re supposed to wear is of a caring, warm educator) you may feel irritability, anxiety, depression and fatigue. It’s tiring to pretend to be someone that you’re not.
There are four common problematic masks identified by Dr. Brooks that people tend to wear at work:
1. Ms. Laid Back
The wearer of this mask wishes to appear as if nothing bothers her. When others may be concerned about a project’s quality, Ms. Laid Back minimizes the worry. Her goal is to appear relaxed. Since no one ever fits this bill all of the time, the mask detracts from high performance. It is sometimes appropriate to attend to details that make a difference. When a person who wears this mask is on a team, she might sweep issues under the rug. At the same time, this type of colleague is useful in helping others avoid sweating the small stuff.
2. Mr. Competent
People wearing this mask believe they mustn’t make mistakes and should always appear knowledgeable. This can come across as a know-it-all demeanor or inability to share vulnerabilities. When wearing this mask, Mr. Competent can be a perfectionist and become defensive when his work is reviewed. At the same, he invests a lot of time and energy into building his knowledge base. He can be very informative and an excellent resource as a result. Finding ways to tap his knowledge base without being made to feel foolish can sometimes be difficult.
3. Mr. Smiley
This type of worker is often extremely friendly, rarely gets angry and even believes he must never show irritation. Mr. Smiley is an enjoyable work mate but has trouble giving difficult messages, preferring to be liked by colleagues. On a team, he tries to help everyone but needs to be encouraged to speak his mind when upset.
4. Ms. Conformity
This employee wants to belong and blend in. She wants to avoid standing out. In the extreme, she functions as the team’s “yes woman”. She robs the organization of its ingenuity and needs to feel secure before fully participating. At the same time, this type wants to belong, which can help a team when people need to display a unified front.
The masks we wear are helpful adjuncts to our personalities, helping us act appropriately in our work and social situations. The trick is to be careful to wear a mask that is not radically different or at odds with the real you. Success depends on being authentic and in touch with your values and goals, ensuring that the mask you wear fits your personality.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.