Authenticity: The Real Deal in Organizational Culture

Meet Authenticity, the Heart of Genuine Interactions

In the corporate corridors where buzzwords buzz like bees around a hive, one word has stood out in recent times: Authenticity. It was Miriam Webster’s 2023 “Word of the Year,” but strip away the buzz, and you’re left with a question hanging in the air, “What does it really mean?”

At first glance, it’s easy to mistake authenticity for the distressed jeans in our wardrobes or the worn leather of our favorite armchair—trappings that wear their history like a badge of honor. And yet we are all smart enough to know that in the retail world, authentic, too, can be manufactured, and we can smell a fake.

Without a doubt, when it comes to human interactions, especially within the fabric of work life, authenticity is something more profound, more nuanced, and more intricate. At it’s best, authenticity is a trait that builds trust between people, elevating their capacity to tell the truth to one another, to be interdependent in solving big problems, to learn and innovate, and to navigate the tricky sub-current of emotions that drive behavior at work with grace and care.

At it’s worst, and in popular media and social networks, authenticity can become a performance associated with a pop-culture superpower that singers like Taylor Swift and Sam Smith have tapped into as they seek their “authentic voice.” Brands have tapped into the deep root of authenticity as something to be cherished and a central trust-builder, making it harder for consumers to discern what is actually authentic from what is made to feel authentic.

The advent of AI has further blurred the line between what is real and what is fake has become blurry and opaque, leaving us wondering. The problem is that the word’s overuse has strained its meaning, making interactions at times palpably artificial. Like the made-up things around us, we sometimes mimic others in a way that, despite our intentions, allows others to sense that we’re not our authentic selves.

The dictionary defines Authentic as both an adverb and a noun: real, actual, true to oneself, and conforming to an original. It’s synonyms include: genuine, bonafide, honest, and true.

The Common Misconceptions: The ‘Raw’ Fallacy

It’s tempting to boil authenticity down to “letting it all hang out,” being blatantly honest, or never hesitating to speak the so-called brutal truth. But, let’s pause there. As consultants in organizational development with a keen eye on coaching and culture innovation, we’ve seen that authenticity isn’t just about being unfiltered or raw—it’s not a one-size-fits-all garment. Dumbing down authenticity to saying whatever you want, whenever you want to, can cause harm and may provide excessive emotionality without meaningful connection, which falls flat.

Even more subtly, letting it all hang out can actually diminish the respect and trust we receive if used without deliberate and thoughtful calibration. I am reminded of a boss I had years ago who, in the face of a new project kick-off, pronounced that he was “terrified” at the work ahead and also “very skeptical” that we would prevail in the face of the challenges we had undertaken. His reveal diminished our faith in him and increased our anxiety—an outcome I am sure he did not intend when he shared from the heart.

The Demand on Leaders and Slippery Slopes

For decades, myths about how to be at work have been being debunked. 1950’s era norms of work and life boundaries (i.e. ”Don’t let them see you sweat,” or “Leave your feelings at home”) have outgrown the realities of how humans thrive at work.

Lisa Rosh and Lynn Offermann wrote in HBR in 2013:

“Authenticity” is the new buzzword among leaders today. We’re told to bring our full selves to the office, to engage in frank conversations, and to tell personal stories as a way of gaining our colleagues’ trust and improving group performance. The rise in collaborative workplaces and dynamic teams over recent years has only heightened the demand for “instant intimacy,” and managers are supposed to set an example.”

And since Rosh and Offermann wrote their piece, titled, Be Yourself, But Carefully, the world of work has been dramatically reshaped by the last 3+ years of a global pandemic, social and political turmoil, and a wildly dynamic economy. In the face of dramatic pivots to remote and hybrid work, huge downturns and hiring waves, a global mental health crisis, a loneliness epidemic, and increasing costs of living everywhere, leaders and business owners are facing a blank new playbook for how to show up.

The landscape of work is changing right before our eyes.

  • People won’t tolerate jobs that leave them constantly burned out and exhausted.
  • 81% of workers today report they’ll be looking for workplaces that support mental health.
  • Most leaders consistently overestimate how employees are doing and how supported they feel.
  • A massive 68% of workers reported feeling actively disengaged, meaning they’re disgruntled and disloyal.
  • Employers and employees disagree on whether remote and flexible work arrangements are good.
  • The person we work for (our immediate leader) is how we experience our company. Something needs to change.

So, how can leaders build trust and confidence of workers that bring them to work every day (even from home!) and activate their talents for success?

We need leaders who are good for people and make work good.

Cue: authenticity, aka being real.

Rather than being carte blanche for people to wear their bathrobes to work and blurt out their thoughts at the expense of others, being real at work means something completely different. What being real means is unique to each one of us. We know it in our gut when someone shows up authentically, and we can sense when someone is faking it.

No amount of reading, training, or degrees can guarantee that we’ll capably be true and authentic with others at work. Being real with one another at work requires stripping away the protective layers that keep our feelings, opinions, and tensions hidden. Decades of politically correct, ingrained ways of being at work must be put aside to discover the unique, true, and honest story we bring to work every day.

Before we look at what authenticity looks like in action for healthy workplace cultures, let’s examine some pitfalls.

Rosh and Offermann define 5 common archetypes of leaders who intend to build trust by authenticity but don’t hit the mark:

  1. Oblivious leaders don’t have a realistic view of themselves and thus reveal information and opinions in a manner that appears clueless or phony.
  2. Bumblers have a better understanding of who they are but not of how they come across to others. Unable to read colleagues’ social cues, including body language and facial expressions, they make ill-timed, inappropriate disclosures or opt out of relationship building altogether.
  3. Open books talk endlessly about themselves, about others, about everything; they’re too comfortable communicating. So although colleagues may seek them out as sources of information, they ultimately don’t trust them.
  4. Inscrutable leaders are at the other end of the spectrum: They have difficulty sharing anything about themselves in the workplace, so they come off as remote and inaccessible and can’t create long-term office relationships.
  5. Social engineers are similar to inscrutable leaders in that they don’t instinctively share, and to bumblers in that they often have difficulty reading social cues, but their chief shortcoming is the way they encourage self-disclosure within their work groups. Instead of modeling desired behaviors, they sponsor external activities such as off-site team building.

Check out this checklist for tips on when to disclose and how to avoid these missteps.

We Are All Special Snowflakes

Let’s stop trying to lead with a one-size-fits-all-approach. Policies, guidelines, and practices are helpful to enforce a minimum standard of compliance. But you can’t lead everyone the same way. Leading people with a one-size-fits all approach will only lead to frustration and disengagement. Everyone is different and has different needs, and as a result, creating connection requires recognizing people’s uniqueness.

Take the time to get to know each individual on your team and tailor your approach to meet their needs. Here’s the 4 key ingredients to accelerate authentic connection:

  1. Listen.

    Listen to understand rather than to come up with a solution.
  2. Connect.

    Connect with your team on an emotional level. Show people that they can trust you.
  3. Encourage.

    Encourage your team to take risks and to think outside of the box.
  4. Support.

    Support your team in their efforts to come up with solutions to the problems they face in their job.

Context + Authentic Leaders = Healthy Company Culture

In my books, I describe my vision for the workplace of the future as a Bravespace workplace:

One in which people can show up, as they are, both worthy and flawed, and do great things together.

Leaders of Bravespace workplaces know that people are not machines, and treat them accordingly. Leadership is less a trait to be learned but, as Hitendra Wahwa, CEO of Mentora Institute, says, a “state to be attained.”

When it comes to company culture, context for is everything. Context provides the container for relevance, meaning, and connection. In particular, when it comes to authenticity at work, it is critical that leaders consider and reveal the context (and relevance) of being real with people at work. Authenticity is not for show and it is not a manufactured performance. It is an actual felt experience, based on the shared interaction people have that invites vulnerability, which is the emotion we experience when we face uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

To be authentic, I have to feel and actually BE authentic, which means I have to deeply know myself and have the ability to tune into others: two critical dimensions of high EQ (emotional intelligence,) perhaps the most underused leadership competence of our work world today.

In building a healthy, conscious workplace culture, leaders and business owners must merge their own leadership practice with the context for showing up authentically when it matters.

There are seven practices for being real (authentic) at work:

  • Walk your talk.

The fastest way to erode trust is to espouse one thing and do another. We tune in to one another at work based on what we see done, not what’s promised.

  • Name the ugly, scary, and hard.

A Bravespace workplace is built on honesty, honesty that’s kind and compassionate. For nearly a century, management practice has scrubbed feelings out of workplaces as if they’re dirty. Healthy cultures are built upon the recognition that feelings are essential elements of the workplace that we must work through together.

  • You’re the leader; you go first.

Employees copy leaders. They tune in to what their leader does to determine what they should be doing. Remember that whenever you act. As leaders, we must go first toward creating a Bravespace workplace. What we do, others will copy.

  • Remember, there are no guarantees.

At work, just as in life, there are no guarantees that our courage will be rewarded, but the only alternative is to opt out and work independently and in isolation. When we work with others there’s no guarantee that it will all work out, but we must show up anyway. The hard parts of work make the sweet parts even sweeter.

  • Keep in mind that it all made sense at the time.

Stop wasting time and effort assigning blame rather than using that time and effort to create solutions for moving forward together. My favorite mantra, “It all made sense at the time,” profoundly eases the feelings of blame and recrimination we feel when we look at our past actions or the past actions of others.

  • Use self-compassion as evidence of empathy.

When we make a mistake, the things we say in the privacy of my mind are astounding. We would never say them to a friend or an employee. We risk creating disconnection and eroding trust by lacking self-compassion, which shows people our capacity for empathy, which is our strongest tool for people feeling seen at work.

  • Own your sh*t.

The really hard part of authenticity is actually showing up, as we are, without cloaks of impermeable perfection and inscrutable confidence. We are human, and we misstep. Owning our part with rigor and honesty is a huge lever for trust build on authenticity.

“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.” —Lance Secretan

Conclusion: The Authenticity Advantage

Authenticity in the workplace is a mosaic of diverse expressions, unified by a core of shared values. It’s the authentic interactions between people that build trust, foster innovation, and create a culture where individuals and the organization flourish. In the end, authenticity isn’t just about being real; it’s about being real together, in a way that propels everyone forward.

As consultants in organization development, we’re here to help you weave authenticity into the very fabric of your company. Because when authenticity thrives, so does business.

To learn more about how we can help your organization embrace and embody authenticity, visit our service offerings page.

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