In a conversation with several colleagues, a debate ensued about whether it was possible to always be authentic at work. One executive stated that he believed in keeping it real; shorthand for telling the truth. Another executive shared his view that authenticity is a recipe for political suicide. Having had many of these conversations over time, I realized there is significant misunderstanding surrounding the concept of authenticity. So let’s clear up some of the misunderstanding.
What is Authenticity?
Authenticity is associated with sincerity, honesty and integrity and these are important traits for good leadership. There are several definitions for authenticity; undisputed credibility; being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. The definition I like best is credited to leadership theorist Lance Secretan, “Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.” All of these definitions point to the dual perspectives for authenticity. There is your own self-perspective and the perspective of others in relationship with you.
What is My Authentic Self?
Authenticity starts with self-awareness. The first and most important step for anyone who desires to be seen as authentic is to, “know yourself.” What do you value? What is important to you? How do you want to be treated? How do you want to treat others? What beliefs impact your interactions with others? Knowing oneself is not a simple exercise; it is an on-going process that requires making the unconscious, conscious. Self is fluid. You are not the same person at 20 as you are at 40. What is authentic to you can change over time. We can learn and grow from experience.
In coaching clients, during their feedback sessions, where they learn how others view them, revelations often are made regarding why they do what they do. Examining that behavior and its impact on others can lead that individual to change. Committing yourself to self-awareness and self- development will help you understand and leverage your authenticity. Understanding how others see you is the other piece of the equation.
Do Others See Me As Authentic?
While we all like to think we can answer this question affirmatively, only others can provide that certificate of authenticity. Their perspective will help you access your blindspot and bring the unconscious into consciousness. Here are a few things you can do to gain their seal of approval:
- Always identify your intent in every interaction. If you are in a meeting and the team is missing a critical piece of information, do you need to speak up? If your intent is to contribute to the success of the project, then yes. If your intent is to not embarrass your boss in the meeting, you may want to speak with him privately. Holding onto critical information and letting the team fail would be inauthentic. I remember a debrief meeting where a colleague stated that he knew the team would fail because we had neglected to consider several factors- which were clearly known to him. Not only was his comment perceived as smug, it created significant distrust between him and the team.
- Express vulnerability and inspire others to do the same. I know from personal experience that it is scary to be vulnerable, especially if you are the boss. No one wants to admit that they don’t know something or have missed something critical. As in the previous example, determining how to deliver a critical piece of information to a group that is gung-ho to proceed with their plan can be daunting. If you share this information, others might reject it and you may in turn feel rejected. Nonetheless, it’s not their acceptance of the information that is important to your authenticity; it’s how and when you deliver the information that matters.
- Admit when you are wrong and embrace change. Everyone makes mistakes and owning up to yours will go a long way in developing credibility. Being open to learning from others and integrating different perspectives into decision making are both critical for leaders. Another consideration is to be careful not to label your opinion as fact. Simply because you believe something does not make it fact or truth. The colleague who believed in keeping it real often confused his opinion for fact. A fact is verifiable, an opinion is not.
What Does Authentic and Organizationally Savvy Look Like?
Authentic behavior does not mean speaking the truth about anything and everything all the time. Sometimes others are not yet ready to hear about issues or could become overwhelmed and confused, unable to process what they have heard. Unless you are authentically a jerk, timing and content are important to consider.
Having a voice or point of view is important to advancing in your career. After all, it is the only way that others will know your value and what you stand for. Placing nice, being agreeable and going along with the group all the time will keep you safe, but it won’t get you noticed. I have a colleague who cultivated a reputation of being the person in the room who always chimed in at the right time. People really valued her input because they knew when she spoke, she would add true value. I asked her about this behavior and she told me that she likes to listen to the discussion and allow others to express themselves and when the discussion reaches a point where things are starting to be repetitive, she will summarize the points made and add her perspective in order to keep the group moving forward. That focus on listening to others was authentic and partly responsible for her assent into the ranks of senior management.
For more on the topic and tips on managing your authenticity as a leaders here’s a great article http://hbr.org/2005/12/managing-authenticity-the-paradox-of-great-leadership/ar/1