Authenticity is massively important.
It’s important in life, it’s important in leadership and it’s certainly important for companies today. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that distrust is now society’s default emotion; authenticity is a core driver of trust, and should certainly be part of any business’s plan to build it with employees. As we wrote about in 2020, the importance of authenticity is only set to rise, as younger generations put pressure on society to place greater emphasis on identity, emotion and agency in the workplace. The roots of authenticity run deep in nearly every positive organizational outcome leaders desire — from human outcomes like belonging, inclusion, psychological safety and sense of purpose to downstream business outcomes like productivity, collaboration and strategy execution. The fact is that if employees feel constrained and unable to express themselves, the entire organization suffers. You’re less likely to get people at their best when you have them, and more likely to lose them too soon.
All of this has led to businesses making authenticity either explicitly or implicitly part of their Employee Value Proposition. As every leader knows, however, concepts — even great ones — get a lot more complicated when they encounter reality.
As Denise Hamilton, CEO of WatchHerWork, covered well, leaders who encouraged authenticity carte blanche have found themselves navigating tricky, unforeseen manifestations of the idea, with unintended consequences.
For instance: what if an employee says he shows up five minutes late to every meeting because his authentic, non-work self is always running late?
What if, in the name of authenticity, a veteran employee shares a concerning story with a new hire about the last person who had the role and why that person left?
What if an employee authentically believes a false stereotype about a marginalized identity group?
Does an authentic leader communicate about a projected budget shortfall and potential layoff right after she first sees the chart?
You get the idea.
Being authentic, of course, can’t mean the same thing as being unfiltered. It can't be an invitation to a fixed mindset, or to obliviousness around your impact on others and the work.
But have we really been clear about that?
The truth that we’re seeing at Gagen is that most businesses that talk about authenticity are not clear what they mean by it. It’s not hard to imagine why. Employees feel particular passion for authenticity; it comes with a lot of benefits; and for years, workplaces have skewed too far in the other direction. Why risk coming off retrogressive or insincere by acknowledging nuances and caveats to the value when you could just leave it as the bright, shiny, abstract concept we’ve all rallied around in op-eds and posters?
Perhaps because this failure to be specific comes with real costs. As Hamilton puts it:
When employees are allowed to use authenticity to justify disrespectful or hurtful actions, everyone loses out. Other employees feel miserable and unsafe. The workplace culture sours. Leaders and managers can feel helpless, convinced that if they try to discourage such behaviors, they’ll be accused of denying employees’ authenticity. And often the biggest losers are the people misbehaving. With no one setting them on the right track or modeling acceptable norms, they miss the lesson — and the opportunity for growth.
When we leave an important, charged concept ambiguous, we risk it being applied in counterproductive ways. We also risk fraying at the fundamental threads of trust between employees and the business.
Anyway, the idea of a singular “authentic self” is a myth. Our identities are context-dependent; different people and environments bring out different versions of us, and we continually evolve with new experiences. You’re probably different around family members than you are around a roommate from your 20s. Does that make one version disingenuous?
To many, these thoughts will feel, if not obvious, certainly intuitive. Authenticity is just not a simple idea. Does the language of your company really reflect all this nuance, though?
If you’re not sure, it’s probably time to better define authenticity for your people, and to define it in practice.
What does authenticity mean for your organization? Where can employees be sure it applies (e.g., with personal hairstyle choices) and where should they know it doesn’t supersede other things your organization cares about? For instance, for many companies, a person’s need to feel authentic is never a valid reason to violate the psychological safety of the workplace for others, or to renege on promises you made to peers.
To really give employees a transparent sense of what authenticity means, however, take it further than a concept. Hold groups where you talk through hypothetical scenarios around authenticity and its complications; solicit different employees’ thoughts on how they’d handle the dilemmas. What should employees ask themselves before they share something personal? What type of authentic self-expression might be harmful to the productivity of the broader workplace? The exercise can build crucial alignment around how the concept translates to real-life context.
These conversations are a productive way to align a leadership team. Starting from there, you can then empower the participants to lead the same exercise within groups of senior and mid-level leaders, scaling the conversations as you build alignment.
Here’s the thing though: to get authenticity right, you have to think about more than just authenticity. Often, the way to tap into the positives of authenticity is to be more transparent about the rest of your employee experience and what you expect.
We wrote earlier this year about how much companies could benefit from being more forthcoming about their cultures and employee experiences. One-size-fits-all cultures ultimately don’t fit anyone, and often, taking time to be more explicit about the expectations that most businesses leave implicit can be the start of a truly differentiated talent brand. If it’s important to your culture that everyone is very polite and formally dressed, you should tell employees that as early and clearly as possible. If your culture generally shies away from discussing divisive political topics, you should be explicit about that.
The clearer you are about everything you expect of employees, the less chance there is for authenticity’s unintended consequences to arise.
Because almost no businesses are asking employees to be something as simple as authentic. They’re asking employees to find a balance between being authentic, accountable, civil, self-aware, open-minded, on-time, communicative, committed to the organization... It’s a lot to track! The real challenge of being an authentic employee is in finding the space for personal truth and self-expression within this much more complicated balancing act.
It’s far from easy to navigate, and we make it harder for everyone when we’re not even explicit about the ask.