Authenticity in the Workplace: How Real Can We Be?
We’ve all been there. We talk to our friends and family in familiar tones, use casual vernacular, and enunciate certain words for effect. When we are the friend, the wife, the sister, we are free to be bold, direct, and even a bit funny when handling certain situations in our personal lives. We get to be our real selves, authentic.
Yet when we step into the office, it’s a different story. We go to work and we believe that we have to become sterilized versions of ourselves. We calculate our responses and deliberately position our bodies. Ankles crossed, knees together, hands folded gently on the table. We think we need to tame ourselves a bit to be accepted, and often we censor a lot in an attempt to gain respect from our colleagues and to be viewed as more professional.
Worry about how we are perceived can drive our behavior, style, work, and level of comfort at the office. If you are overly concerned about how your boss views you and whether or not your teammates think you are competent, how easy will you feel revealing your authentic self? Would you be open to sharing details about your life, your culture, or your heritage?
What is authenticity?
Why do we think our authentic selves won’t be fully accepted or embraced at work? Why do we change, thinking that if we behave a certain way, we will be perceived as more serious, more focused, or more entrepreneurial?
These questions are not new for women.
Authenticity is behavior that is aligned with one’s unique personality, spirit, and character.
Women have been conditioned to mirror masculine traits at work. Signs of weakness and softening have been historically linked with a loss of power and composure. And it’s clear that these types of beliefs about how we are perceived can drive our behavior. It also impacts our work style and degree of comfort in the workplace.
This could show up in many different ways, if you are an African American woman you may opt not to wear your natural hair and instead relax your hair. Or you may consciously sidestep certain topics with your colleagues to avoid things that may bring up cultural sensitivities. In such restrictive environments, future leaders face limits on their potential. Individuals outside of the norm may not want to step onto the corporate ladder in the first place, much less attempt to climb higher rungs.
How real can you be?
As women, we need to embrace our uniqueness and operate authentically in the workplace. An HBR study of Black women in corporate America reports that many women say that they consciously code-switch to fit in with the dominant culture. This could eventually lead to mental exhaustion, feelings of exclusion, and career stagnation. While this is something that is reported by women of color, all women could benefit from ideas and tips on how to operate with authenticity in a way that in fact, benefits their professional development and progression goals.
So we all agree that authenticity matters and it is the benchmark for leaders in today’s corporate climate. But women have to navigate this paradigm carefully. Another HBR article on authenticity, recounts an instance where a woman newly promoted to senior leadership thought it was a good idea to be transparent and share her nervousness and concerns with her team about stepping into a new role that increased her book of business significantly. What she viewed as authenticity and transparency, her team viewed as lack of confidence.
Tips to bring authenticity into the workplace
We must cherish our uniqueness and find the confidence to present our true, authentic selves at work. We’ve outlined some tips to help.
1. Be aware
If a certain behavior feels forced, fake, or uncomfortable, do a self-check to uncover the reasons why. Is this an action you would not normally take? Are you engaging in something that is not aligned with your values or sense of self?
Feeling uncomfortable in new or stressful situations are obstacles that are necessary for growth and development; however, responsibilities that detract from your sense of self demand closer investigation. Identify the appropriate corrective action to operate from a place of authenticity.
2. Be honest
Once you’ve noticed a situation or person that consistently triggers inauthentic behavior, recognize this dissonance and be honest about the impact it has on you, your work, and your goals. Be honest not only with yourself but also your loved ones about the values and priorities that are most important to you. If you find yourself compromising regularly, it may be time to make a change.
3. Be direct
When we operate from a place of honesty and truth, we develop more effective working relationships. It’s critical to be upfront about your leadership and management style. Set appropriate boundaries and be clear with your team about what’s expected and required. Authenticity accompanies open, direct communication and results in greater trust and understanding.
Why does authenticity matter?
Authenticity breeds diversity of perspective and thought — aspects necessary for innovation, creativity, and problem solving. Managers who display authentic traits are often rated as more relatable and easy to work with.
If you’re feeling anxious to communicate more openly with your team, see what discussions you can start. Facilitate conversations that encourage genuine conversation and take time to ask colleagues meaningful questions. Pause to listen to their answers. Authenticity takes times and courage to practice, but the rewards are worth it: Greater job satisfaction, personal integrity, and clearer vision for your career.