How Leaders Can Promote Authenticity Without Conflict
By encouraging growth among all parties—the organization, the team, and the employees—associations can allow room for authenticity.
It’s not always easy to show your true self at the workplace with a sheen of professionalism while navigating expectations. But amid ongoing shifts in how people perceive work, discussions about authenticity are on the rise.
Authenticity in the workplace—the idea that it’s possible to work in a way that matches your values and worldview—has been a growing talking point because it’s widely believed that it can help to improve career success and job performance. It’s more than just a concept; the latter point is supported by a flagship 2001 study published in the Academy of Management Journal.
The challenge of authenticity is that when everyone shows their true selves, they reveal their quirks—and those quirks can cramp the style of others, or betray social norms. That can create tensions and conflict that can be difficult to manage.
What’s a leader to do to strike a balance between authenticity and harmony? Here are a few possibilities.
Understand Employee Challenges
The first rule of authenticity in the workplace: acknowledge that it’s what employees want. According to the 2021 Gartner EVP Employee Survey reported by HR Executive, 82 percent of employees say it’s important for their employers to see them as a person—but only 45 percent of employees think that actually happens. The result is that team members are not able to bring their full selves to the office, often utilizing a persona or a “mask.”
“On the one hand, it’s important to be seen as someone who can be trusted to do their job properly,” Yahoo Finance’s Lydia Smith wrote last year. “On the other hand, being seen as disingenuous can harm your career prospects—and make you miserable to boot.”
But wearing a “mask” can go both ways. If managers understand what types of personas employees feel like they need to put on in order to do their best work, those managers are better equipped to understand the challenges facing their workforce. Identify the personas you see at work around you, then ask yourself what the employment experience of someone wearing that mask might be. This can help you reveal limitations in your current approach—setting you up to create a culture where those personas can be opt-in, not mandatory.
By building a culture that can adjust to the personalities and differing approaches of employees, managers can elicit stronger individual performance.
Encourage “Hidden Similarities”
Authenticity can put differences in personality and work style into sharp focus, making it hard to determine common ground among team members—and making it easier to foster workplace tension.
But there’s always common ground to be found, and leaders can encourage its discovery via a concept called “hidden similarities.” As Natalia Karelaia, an associate professor of decision sciences at INSEAD, put it in an article last year:
In particular, organizations can hugely benefit from explicit and candid discussions of their fundamental collective values: What do we truly value and stand for, as individuals and as a collective? What are we striving for? Why? This discussion allows not only for a better understanding of the meaning given to tasks and missions, but also helps individuals determine what fundamental human—and hopefully humanistic—values bring them together in their collective missions.
Giving employees social situations that can highlight similarities lingering under the surface—say, after-work functions or team-building activities—can play an important role in exposing where opportunities for authenticity truly lie.
Reconsider What “Authenticity” Means
As employers try to navigate authenticity, employees may also find that they have a lot to learn when balancing authenticity and skill—a challenge employers can help to facilitate.
Herminia Ibarra, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School who has considered the challenge of authenticity many times over the years, has suggested that the line between authenticity and professional growth is more complex than it looks.
“What’s tricky about these transition points is not that the new skills are hard to learn, it’s that the old ones have become core to our sense of who we are, our identity,” she wrote for TED.com last year. “As a result, not sticking with them feels like we’re somehow being inauthentic and so we do—and we get stuck.”
This is what Ibarra called an “authenticity paradox,” where people are challenged to do things they are not comfortable with as a way to uncover greater growth and success. “I’ve found that you cannot think your way out or reflect your way out of the authenticity paradox; you have to act your way into a new way of thinking about yourself,” she added.
The real secret to finding a comfort level with authenticity might lie in finding a way to balance the conversation so that everyone feels like they have a role in the final result—employers and employees alike.
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