Many people, especially women and people of color, can find it difficult to truly be themselves at work. Tricia Montalvo Timm, a first-generation Latina and board member of Salsify, discusses the challenges of embracing your own identity and what employers can do to eliminate barriers and fully support employees exactly as they are.

Tricia Montalvo Timm
Corporate Executive, Board Director & Author

It takes hard work to succeed and rise the ranks in any workplace. Adding the weight of needing to conform to an identity that isn’t your own can make that process even harder.

Tricia Montalvo Timm is a former C-suite executive from such technology companies as Looker and SugarCRM. Now a board member and chair of the compensation committee at Salsify, Timm, a first-generation Latina, has learned first-hand what it takes to fully embrace one’s own identity in the corporate setting and how beneficial it can be for individuals, teams and organizations themselves. Ahead of the release of her upcoming book, “Embrace the Power of You: Owning Your Identity at Work,” Timm spoke with ABF Journal about her own experience and how individual employees can conquer self-doubt and a desire to “just blend in” to improve their lives at the office.

Will you please tell us about yourself and your experience embracing and owning your identity in corporate America?

Tricia Montalvo Timm: I am a first-generation Latina who worked as a corporate lawyer advising high-tech companies big and small. I currently serve as a corporate director at enterprise software company Salsify and am an angel investor and speaker/author. For most of my career, I was often the only woman in the room and certainly the only Latina in the room. The number of Latinas that hold the general counsel seat is less than 2%; the number of Latinas on corporate boards is less than 1% and the number of Latinas in venture capital is less than 0.2%. I have been in all those rooms as one of the very few.

I spent most of my career downplaying my ethnicity because I held the belief that it would hinder my career progression. I found out that I was not alone. According to a study of Latinos at work by Coqual, 76% of Latinos cover or downplay their ethnicity to climb the corporate ladder. After decades of hiding and changing who I was to fit in, I became frustrated, exhausted and bitter. I decided I could not keep it up. I did some personal work to unpack decades of messages that led to this internalized belief that I was not enough and after that transformation realized that in order to achieve true belonging, we must all show up as our authentic selves. It was during this time that I landed my job as general counsel at Looker and started the diversity, equity and inclusion program at the company.

It was also during my time at Looker that I first told my personal story of struggling to belong in the workplace. I did not realize the impact simply telling my story would have on an organization, particularly [for] Latinas in the workplace. It was at that moment that I realized that I had a larger purpose.

Why is it difficult for many people, especially women and people of color, to feel a sense of belonging or worthiness in the workplace and why is finding it important to building a successful career?

Montalvo Timm: It is human nature to want to belong. If you are part of an underrepresented group or marginalized group, however, you have likely received messages throughout your life that you were not enough. Either through what you see in the media, through lack of representation in the workplace or through derogatory comments or microaggressions, you are regularly reminded that you may not be accepted as your true self. This leads to the desire to downplay that part of you that you believe doesn’t fit in. Unfortunately, covering or downplaying part of your identity will lead to things such as anxiety, depression and imposter syndrome.

By being able to show yourself authentically in the workplace, you will be able to spend less energy on changing who you are and more energy on producing value for your organization. Research shows that employees who have a sense of belonging are more engaged and satisfied at work. It is not only key to one’s mental health, but also great for organizations who want to retain key talent.

What is “code switching” and why is it harmful to people and their growth?

Montalvo Timm: Code switching is the phenomenon of adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and/or expression to conform to a different cultural norm. It is when a person from a stigmatized group (due to race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, etc.) is interacting with people in a non-stigmatized group. They may code switch to play down their group membership to fit in and be accepted. This daily, hourly or even minute-by-minute process of evaluating a situation and changing how you behave in it can take a tremendous amount of energy, and after a while, takes an emotional toll.

Why is it important not to just blend in but to be fully accepted in a corporate environment (or any environment, really)?

Montalvo Timm: Blending in works for a while. And there may be situations in which your authentic self will not be accepted and you need to blend in to keep your job. Every person needs to evaluate their own situation to know whether they have the tools and strategies in hand to respond if their authentic self is not welcomed. However, I believe that over time, you realize that you can no longer keep it up for your own mental health. You realize that it is too exhausting to change who you are.

Separately, from a business perspective, we are living in a more diverse world. Our demographics are changing and it is important that our workplaces change with it. In order to get products and services out into the marketplace that serve this growing, diverse market, we need those diverse perspectives in the room. If everybody blends in and goes along with the dominant culture, we will not do a good job serving all communities.

How can someone better embrace their full selves at work? What are some practical steps to take?

Montalvo Timm: Here are three steps someone can take to begin on the road to self-acceptance:

• Recognize the mask you’ve put on and why. Many of us don’t even realize the masks we wear. It took me decades to even realize that I was downplaying who I was and changing my behavior to fit in. The first step is to simply recognize what masks you might be wearing and understand the why behind it.

Start revealing parts of your story (slowly). Once you recognize what parts of your identity you are hiding, start practicing revealing them. You can start small, such as with a good friend or even a total stranger somewhere where you feel safe or there is no consequence. You don’t have to reveal everything all at once. Just one small thing at a time that makes you feel comfortable. You will be surprised to see how people enjoy learning new things about you.

Small steps, repeat often. Once you have found the courage to tell your story in safe settings, repeat. Just telling your story out loud will start giving you the courage to do it again. With each time, you will gain the courage to tell more or tell wider. With each small step, you are on the road to embracing your whole self.

If someone is met with resistance when trying to be more fully open about who they are at work, what can they do?

Montalvo Timm: Find support. Whether it be through a manager, an employee resource group (ERG) or your own personal network, it is important to have a person or people in your life that will validate your experience; that will make you feel seen. You may not be able to change the environment around you, but with support, you will be able to manage through it.

In my book, I have a section called, “Find your People” and talk about the importance of having your personal champion, a true friend and a connection with a community. Your personal champion can be a partner, mentor, family member or even a therapist. It is someone who is always on your side and will remind you of your accomplishments and contributions when you forget them. A true friend is the friend who accepts you as your messy self, someone in your life that you can share the disappointments with and who will listen without judgment. And finding a community of people who share the same identity, likes or interests will make you feel grounded. It will remind you that you are perfectly OK exactly as you are.

What is the “scan-evaluate-adapt” process and how does it negatively affect people? How can people eliminate this from their everyday behavior?

Montalvo Timm: The “scan-evaluate-adapt process” is a coping mechanism to blend into an environment so that one can fit in. It starts with scanning the room or situation to see who’s there and what kind of environment it is. Next, evaluating what kind of persona would be welcome in that environment. Finally, adapting your behavior, language or mannerisms to fit the situation. It is very similar to code switching but a bit more intentional. For example, if I went to a company event, I would change how I interacted with someone depending on who they were. If I were talking with the CEO or another executive, I would stand tall and confidently talk about the stock market or the latest trend in our industry. If I were talking with a male colleague that was younger than me, I might grab a beer and casually talk about sports. And if I were talking with the wife of a work colleague, I would soften my tone and posture and talk about the kids and vacation plans. Each interaction required a different persona so that I could make the other person feel more comfortable.

Like code switching, after a while this becomes exhausting. The first step to eliminate this from your everyday behavior is to get grounded in who you are. What are your likes and dislikes? What do you enjoy talking about? Start talking about what you enjoy instead of thinking about what other people might want to talk about. Share that part of you in your communications with others and see whether they are interested in it and don’t worry if they are not. Many times, people are more interested in you than you realize.

What is negative self-talk and how does that play into this equation? How can people identify it and how can they eliminate it from their everyday behavior?

Montalvo Timm: Oftentimes, there is a little voice inside our head telling us we are not enough. That is called negative self-talk. When that inner chatter begins, it is important to recognize it and start utilizing strategies to dampen that voice. One such way is to distance yourself from the worry. You can ask yourself, “How am I going to feel about this in one week, one month, one year, 10 years?” This technique reminds us that things will get better. It puts things in perspective.

What are some other habits people form that inhibit them from embracing themselves fully at work?

Montalvo Timm: Sometimes people just “go along with things” or pretend not to care. For example, let’s say you find yourself in a situation where someone tells an inappropriate joke or comment and the group laughs. Instead of speaking up or commenting on how hurtful that may have been to you, one coping mechanism is to just go along with it. It is self-preservation. You don’t want to make the group uncomfortable by raising the issue. You are willing to make yourself uncomfortable first before you make others uncomfortable. This inhibits you from embracing your full self.
Others habits include being self-deprecating and making jokes about themselves in order to be accepted by others around them. They feel like if they make fun of themselves then they beat someone to the punch and can’t be hurt. However, ultimately, the only person being hurt is you. Belonging begins with self-acceptance and the first step is to begin accepting the whole you.

What role can employers play to help employees not only want to be their full selves at work but feel safe to do so?

Montalvo Timm: Companies that focus on building inclusive cultures will create an environment where employees will feel safe to bring their whole selves to work. Here are a few things employers can do to create a safe environment:

Don’t “other” your diverse employees. With the pressure to diversify the workforce, we are seeing many companies update their website to showcase their latest DE&I efforts. That is good until you start asking your few diverse employees to pose for pictures for the corporate website. This makes your diverse employees feel used and further highlights their “otherness.”

Expect different opinions. If you hire a more diverse workforce and ask employees to bring their whole selves to work, then expect that you will get different opinions or thoughts than you had before. Welcome these conversations rather than stifle or ignore them or ask them “why they can’t just agree with everyone else.” When having a group discussion, maybe ask: “Who has an idea that is opposite of what we have been discussing?” to make diverse perspectives the norm rather than the exception.

Step back. The greatest gift you can give someone who feels invisible in an organization is the opportunity to be seen. Resist the urge to speak for them, explain an idea on their behalf or dominate the conversation. Instead, pass the mic to them, don’t take credit for work they did and give them proper attribution. By simply stepping back and giving them the stage, you are signaling that you value what they bring to the table. •

Tricia Montalvo Timm is a corporate executive, board director, speaker, thought leader and author. Her new book, “Embrace the Power of You: Owning Your Identity at Work,” released on March 7 and can be found at many major booksellers.