Thoughts on being authentic

Guest post by Alan Landry

Alan Landry

Alan Landry

What does it mean to be “authentic” and does it matter?  Over the past few years this has been a topic of a lot of conversation, especially in the workplace.  Being authentic is about being whole to the person that you are, whole in mind, body and spirit. 

I liken it to the clothes we each have in our closet.  Even when they are odd or outrageous, the clothes we have are uniquely ours, and we are comfortable in them.  Put on someone else’s clothes and even if they fit you know right away they are “not you!”  And so it is with authenticity. 

Being authentic is being comfortable in your own skin, not seeking or choosing to be someone or something you are not.  Frequently being authentic means being able to bring your whole self to work.  There is so much anxiety and fear these days over being judged for who you are, what you look like, how you dress, the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, your cultural identity, marital status, personality style, and your age among a host of common discriminators, that many chose to hide part of who they are and often trying to appear to be someone they are not in order to “fit in”. 

While no one is immune from feeling left out, I have found it to be especially important to women and people of color seeking the same basic access and privilege that white males acquire without qualification.  I was in denial about this for decades until I was offered the chance to attend a conference on white males as full diversity partners hosted by the WMFDP organization (see wmfdp.com). The fact that I did not want to believe in it did not make it untrue.  This conference gave me a chance to learn from women and people of color and to experience their perspectives rather than being wedded to my own uninformed, but well-intentioned, prejudice.  Yet this was just the beginning of my diversity journey into the world of work-place inequalities, all based on someone in power judging someone not in power over one or more of the characteristics described above.  Left to their own devices, such leaders create hostile work environments, diminishing those not like them, and inhibiting the performance of their teams. 

To survive, you “fit in” or you perish.  We all know this happens more that we care to admit.  Rather than appreciating diversity for the beauty and richness that it can bring to any team or organization, these leaders and the organizations they belong to tend to be abusive and ultimately, poor performers over time.  They gain unenviable reputations, lose quality team members, and are unable to recruit the quality that they seek because they create environments where it is not possible to bring your whole self to work.  They create insiders and outsiders, strangely similar to the concept of givers and takers that I wrote about in previous posts (see Ishmael by Daniel Quinn if this is new to you).  This loss of human capital is a singular result of bosses who practice and encourage discrimination, usually under the radar and practiced with nuanced subtlety.  So the question here – are these leaders who judge others and who prevent them from being whole in the workplace just being “authentic” to the person that they are?  It appears that being “authentic” is also insufficient, at least as a measure of human goodness.

This loss of human capital is a singular result of bosses who practice and encourage discrimination, usually under the radar and practiced with nuanced subtlety.

I have thought about this a lot in my subsequent years in the work place and it’s a bit more complicated than it may seem to be.  On reflection I hold the view that bringing less than your whole self to work is bad for you, bad for your teams, and ultimately bad for the business.  Motivating yourself to perform at the highest levels of your potential is not possible when you are spending part of that potential on shielding who you really are and living in fear that who you are is somehow less than good.  But fear of rejection, of not fitting in, of being isolated at best and discriminated against at worst are very real and powerful motivators for most people. 

From our earliest years we all come to experience such negative emotions, real or imagined.  High school years can be particularly brutal for a host of obvious reasons, and these fears do not magically disappear in college or later in the work place.  Cross-generational work forces have magnified the importance of this conversation. Watch what happens every time a new leader moves into a team.  Odds are, the behavior of some if not all of the team members will change, some subtly, some overtly, but always toward the “preferences” of the new leader.  It is both fascinating and curious at the same time as each team member jockeys for favor with the new boss.  It is not long before there is a clear picture of what the boss likes and doesn’t like, and team behavior will often closely align with those preferences unless the leader is developed and perceptive.

So this conversation is about two poles – the leader, and the led – and authenticity plays a role in each.  For the leader, my caution is to value diversity over sameness – resist the temptation to surround yourself with sycophants because if you do that you will never get any answer other than the one you already know.  Encourage diversity.  Seek it out.  Be careful about the prejudices your display in the workplace.  Especially if you are a white male.  Get yourself a diversity accountability partner who will support you as you learn and grow.  Make sure when you are hiring that you do not create the image that you only hire in your image and likeness.  In your meetings with your team, encourage dissent and reward those courageous enough to speak their minds (respectfully of course).  Be open to understanding your blind spots – they exist whether you choose to see them or not. 

Focus more on what you do not know than on what you do know.  Above all, make it clear that you do not want “yes men or women” on your team and back up your words with actions.  Attend diversity training.  No matter how developed you are, you NEVER arrive at a destination on this journey of life.  Ask yourself what it is that you are afraid of and make an intentional effort to inform yourself and your fears.  Walk the talk – nothing is more meaningful.  Be authentic, but that is not license to be an abusive leader.  Where your authenticity is hurtful to others, grow up and recognize your responsibility to set the proper example.  Make sure you have plenty of checks and balances in place to help you differentiate the real from the unreal, the truth from the convenient falsehood.

For the led, remember that you are in control of the situation.  No one can make you do anything you do not want to do or be anything you do not want to be.  Help your boss and your team be successful by communicating authenticity in all you do, and being authentic in all your actions.  Hold yourself, your boss and your team accountable for fair treatment regardless of circumstance, sex, race, color, creed, sexual orientation, age or any other possible discriminator.  Follow as you would like to lead, and lead where opportunity presents itself.  There are many kinds of leadership – positional leadership is the least effective.  If you are working in a hostile environment, make sure you are not contributing to it by appeasing bad behavior.  Walk the talk.  Seek mentors who can help you navigate these challenging waters.  Above all, know yourself, be courageous, set the right example, and know that it is better to leave an abusive boss who is unwilling to change than it is to try to be less than the person that you are.

And so we circle back to the beginning.  What does it mean to be authentic?  Is it carte blanche to be abusive, to discriminate, to surround yourself with those most like you?  That is certainly being authentic if you are the one in charge, but it is also being an awful leader and you deserve it if your team abandons you.  Clearly, being authentic is only part of the requirement.  I have used the word “developed” elsewhere in this post, and I think that is the best adjective I can come up with.  A developed leader is a self-aware leader, sensitive to his/her impact on others, aware of their own blind spots, and humble enough to accept help and support from the rest of the team.  To be self aware and authentic as a leader at the same time seems to be good.  This is about life-long learning and improvement no matter how educated or accomplished you are. And that will always form the best foundation for a productive team.

For the led, to be authentic and dysfunctional in the name of being “who you are” is also clearly bad behavior. We all know teammates we steer clear of because they are difficult and that is “just the way they are!”  How sad.  Just as with the leader, being “authentic” is only part of the equation.  Being “developed” as a human being seems to fill in the missing pieces here as well.  Self-awareness, humility, actively seeking mutual support, openness to improvement and selflessness all contribute to team effectiveness and ultimately to team results. High performing teams understand this.  They hold one another accountable – they are authentic and developed as individuals AND as teams.  Once you serve with one you will never forget the experience. They understand that the major competitive advantage any team has over another lies in its human capital.  They invest in self-learning.  They have internal and external integrity and accountability– and in so doing, they are both authentic and developed.

So the next time you are tempted to use the word “authentic” in the context of the workplace, consider these other equally important characteristics that characterize the best teams and take the time to reflect on the perspectives of authenticity both as leader and as led, and as functional as well as dysfunctional.  Authentic is only good when the end it seeks is good!

One thought on “Thoughts on being authentic

  1. Consider the perspective that in a lot of ways we are becoming too tolerant. Certainly no one should be discriminated against based on their gender, race, etc. But we are reducing the ability of our leaders by not allowing them to hold others accountable. In the age of the participation trophy children are being taught that just showing up is all that’s expected. When they eventually are faced with the reality of failure, which everyone is, they look to place the blame on someone else. It was a far easier time to be a successful leader when individuals were taught the values of hard work and personal responsibility.

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