Authenticity is one of those words. It has, in recent years, become one of those popular, hip, fashionable, buzzy buzzwords that people toss around very casually in the name of their brand or your brand or some other brand. We seem to turn a lot of good ideas into buzzwords, but I think there is something especially horrendous about doing it to authenticity. You do not have to look very far or very hard to be told that if you simply buy this brand of clothing (like everybody else), you too can be authentic.
When I use the word authenticity, I am talking about being true to who you are; knowing who you are and acting accordingly. I know it sounds like it should be an easy thing, but I believe that for a great many of us it is not. Social pressure, real and perceived expectations, fear of not fitting in—there are a lot of dynamics at play that make it safer to keep our uniqueness to ourselves and fit in neatly. And I think a lot of this is magnified at work.
Here are a few questions to reflect on regarding authenticity in your workplace:
1. Is it safe to be unpopular where you work?
We are complex and dynamic beings and—in so many ways—different from each other. If each of us is able to show up to work, be true to ourselves and tell the truth to each other, then there is going to be a day, a project, or a meeting for every single one of us where we are the freak, the oddball, the heretic, the minority voice, the person with the big crazy idea or the uncomfortable question. It should be perfectly safe and normal to be slightly unpopular within the context of a conversation, project or meeting.
2. Is it safe to disagree, as long as you do so respectfully?
This is one of the first places where authenticity gets stabbed in the back. So many teams (at all levels) in so many organizations do not know how to disagree well, so they avoid serious disagreement at all costs. This is a sneaky kind of dysfunction because it looks and smells so polite. I’ll put it bluntly: Either you reward disagreement done well or you reward dishonesty.
3. Is it always safe to tell the truth?
The importance of this should be self-evident. Is it safe to share bad news? Is it safe to honestly answer that “where do you see yourself in five years” question? How are employees treated when they put in their notice? How are exit interviews and exit interview data handled? If your organization does not care deeply about the truth, things like authenticity, learning, innovation and inclusion are always going to be more dangerous and more difficult than they should be.
4. Does your organization value (and practice) healthy conflict?
Probably not; organizations that do conflict well are rare. This might be one of the biggest opportunities for competitive advantage available today. The roads to innovation, an inclusive employee experience, and a fully engaged workforce all pass through conflict done well.
5. Does your organization talk a lot about culture fit?
Unless you can explain your culture and can speak about how it shows up in behavior, you can replace this question with a more direct one: have we found another clone? For 99 percent of organizations, culture fit is just a really polite way of dressing up biases and replicating the status quo.
So. Does your organization value authenticity? Is it a place where you can make your unique contribution, or is it a place where being different has consequences? And what does that mean for you?
Be good. Or be good at it.