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Authenticity at work


A couple of weeks ago, I ran a LinkedIn poll asking people how authentic they are at work on a scale of 1 – 10. Over 75% of respondents were at or above a 7/10 i.e. behaving really authentically.

Now, this high number might be down to my audience, as I suspect that many of the respondents have already worked hard on aligning their careers to who they are. Notwithstanding this, the result looks like a cause for celebration because it’s good to be authentic at work, right?

I decided to do a bit of research…

Bring your whole self to work

This used to be a phrase that was bandied about with abundance a few years ago. It was thought that all good organisations should strive to create an environment where each individual person could “bring their whole selves to work”. This felt like the ultimate goal for an inclusive environment.

So, is it possible to create a culture where every single person can be themselves and should we want to?

A friend of mine commented on my LinkedIn Poll that “Authenticity can be a trap sometimes, particularly for minority groups who are urged to be themselves but also, at the same time, 'fit in'.” She added that it’s “So important to be able to share ideas, challenge and so on but beware of sharing too much, too soon.”

She has identified two areas that can prove problematic.

Firstly, if an organisation is encouraging employees to be “authentic” then it truly needs to create a culture where difference is valued and celebrated. This culture needs to pervade the whole organisation and celebrating difference needs to true for all individuals within the organisation. It strikes me that this can be a complex issue for large organisations.

Secondly, she has identified that it is helpful to be intentional about what you share and when. This HBR article outlines some useful steps to share yourself intentionally and appropriately. My takeaways are:

  • Make sure you’re sharing in order to facilitate collaboration and teamwork, not just to make friends;
  • Understand the cultural context as some cultures are more inclined to disclose personal information than others;
  • Keep very personal disclosures for when you’re looking to strengthen a relationship not establish it.

Just be yourself

You know that I love any opportunity to quote Brené Brown, so here is her take on authenticity: “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are”.

This is an 'aha' moment for me, particularly where she says it’s a daily practice. We assume that authenticity is easy. How many times have you been given the advice: “just be yourself!”

But actually, it’s really hard to “just be yourself” because we are influenced by two opposing factors: firstly, our deep-rooted values that define who we really are and secondly by our human tribal instincts to fit in.

So, not only can it be hard for an organisation to encourage authenticity but it’s actually hard at an individual level as well.

Be true to yourself

Another lens through which to look at authenticity is the oft-given advice of “be true to yourself”. This great TED Talk by Herminia Ibarra makes a great point. Who are you being true to: your past self, your present self or your future self?

Striving to remain true to your past, or even your present, self could make you behaviourally rigid and stifle your ability to grow and progress.

Ibarra talks about those moments in life when “what got me here, won’t get me there”. We need to be flexible in our approach and in service of our future self. Our desired destination can be the driver for (sometimes uncomfortable) behavioural change.

In conclusion

I hope these shared ideas will help you to shape how you think about authenticity at work. It has given me a lot of food for thought. Here are some questions that will help you explore these concepts for yourself:

  • What stories could I share that will foster collaboration and teamwork?
  • What personal stories could I share that could strengthen an existing relationship?
  • How do my personal values fit with the environment / culture that I work in? Is there any tension there? What can I do about that?
  • What is one area that I’d like to develop which will help me attain my future goals?

Next week, we will continue with the theme of authenticity (it’s a big one!) and look at behavioural adaptability and flexibility.

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