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Authenticity in the workplace: what it really means

There’s a lot of chatter about authenticity at work. Some companies place great emphasis on enabling authenticity under the same umbrella as supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Some studies show that employees who feel they can be “real” at work experience greater job satisfaction and less stress, among other benefits.

In the general sense, authenticity is when an individual’s outward self-expression aligns with their internal sense of self. For a low-stakes example, it’s feeling comfortable saying that you don’t like coffee and would prefer tea when a manager asks if you’d like a cup.

If I don’t feel comfortable saying “no,” to coffee because everyone at work is a Starbucks fanatic, I may bend to the majority and take that espresso. But what I really wanted was green tea.

The opposite of authenticity, in a workplace setting, is conformity. When the stakes are higher, it becomes more important to remain authentic and true to your personal values and accepted norms for ethical behavior.

Expressing your true self cannot be in direct conflict with your company’s commitment to corporate values and (DEI.)

But what happens when your “authentic self’ clashes with your company’s core values? Here’s where it gets tricky, and when authenticity needs to be better defined.

Be yourself! But not if your default status is jerk. If expressing your true self means acting in opposition to your company’s commitment to corporate values and diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI), then that part of your persona needs to stay home.

How can you tell the difference? Here’s an illustration.

Let’s say an employee wants to wear their hair in a style that represents their cultural heritage.

It may invite questions.

It may look different than the hairstyles of other employees.

But does it have a negative impact on the work they do? Does it have a negative impact on the ability of their colleagues to be productive when around them? The short answer is no. If this individual works in manufacturing or healthcare and their hair may pose a safety issue, a hairnet or similar option is a simple solution.

Now, what if an employee is an adherent to a faith that demands the exclusion of gay people, or trans people, or anyone who is not of that faith? That would be a difficult work challenge. You couldn’t effectively collaborate with someone you refuse to acknowledge. That aspect of authenticity has no place in a workplace committed to respecting each individual and supporting diversity.

In the current business world, many people work remotely, at least part-time. For some, this is an excellent way to work. For others, it’s a challenge to self-motivate and maintains productivity when they thrive in a collaborative, in-person environment. Workstyle differs for everyone.

One supervisor recently shared with his manager that he’s struggling with working from home. In sharing his authentic self, regarding the work environment, he could explore options to schedule in-person meetings and office time with colleagues without violating the company health-related policies. If he had kept that to himself, being inauthentic about how he felt in a work from home (WFH) scenario, his performance would have suffered. He would likely have greater problems down the road.

Authenticity aligned with organizational values is the sweet spot in the workplace.

Our personality traits and character are important aspects in authentic behavior that influence how we interact with others and what kinds of roles we hold at work.

When I counsel coaching clients about authenticity, I often refer to the elements of a 360-degree evaluation by Envisia Learning about emotional intelligence. I use it to help gather honest colleague feedback. It asks direct reports, peers, and supervisors to consider whether the employee does the following:

  • Do they listen to understand?
  • Do they keep others informed about their work and important information relevant to your work?
  • Do they convey their thoughts well, regardless of audience?
  • Do they fairly assess the work of others?
  • Do they recognize the accomplishments of others with equal attention?
  • Do they negotiate conflict constructively?
  • Do they make decisions based on relevant information available?
  • Do they develop ways to actively involve others in decision making and problem solving?

When leaders can display behaviors that assist, motivate, encourage, and support others who depend on each other to accomplish tasks, projects, and assignments, this leads to business goal attainment.

Currently, I’m working with an authentic leader who is a natural introvert. This individual has, however, developed a capability to communicate in an effective manner that allows him to stay informed about progress while he helps his team understand the goal of their efforts, along with changing business conditions that could impact the project. This approach involves mutual adaptation by the leader and his direct reports to provide what the team needs and what the project requires. The leader holds a few more in-person meetings, stretching beyond his regular comfort zone. His direct reports send more informative emails than they typically would in their daily workflow.  The give and take assures all parties’ needs get met while keeping the connection consistent and genuine.

Conversely, when leaders lack the ability to demonstrate consideration for the feelings and needs of others, organizational performance suffers for the team they lead and the organization at large. For example, a team was required to deliver sales results that met or exceeded set goals. I was asked by a leader to coach a member of the team in a management role who exhibited performance challenges. Specifically, this leader was unable to adjust communication style to different people and situations, apply innovative ideas to enhance results, or seek out and react to diverse customer feedback. This led to poor team performance.

More worryingly, this leader showed inappropriate work behaviors and would often lash out at their colleagues, creating a hostile work environment and diminishing their ability to build trusting relationships. Trust is critical in all relationships, but particularly with demographically diverse groups, where the inability to foster effective and candid communication can have serious career consequences.

To get status updates, the leader would call their direct reports, and those who reported to them, and request information about sales calls and forecasts. He would check for inconsistencies in the data received, and if he found any, he would call out the direct report for explanation in a confrontational manner. This created a stressful environment for all team members and created hours of extra work as these explanation meetings pulled them away from clients and opportunities to close new business. You likely won’t be surprised to learn that this team had high turnover, frequently missed sales targets, and was unable to sustain previous quarters’ positive sales results.

Leaders must be self-aware, understanding their impact on others. When it’s clear how they’re operating is failing to deliver results and build strong connections with the demographically and behaviorally diverse individuals who report to them, they need to recalibrate and become coachable. This leader was unable to change approach and grow to meet the needs of the team, He was subsequently released from the organization. 

Bad behavior ruins collaborative, cohesive teams, and the great work they could do. There’s no way around it. We simply cannot tolerate jerks at work, even if they’re brilliant contributors. Authenticity aligned with organizational values is the sweet spot in the workplace. Negative or polarizing personality traits or practices may be part of someone’s “true self.” However, behaviors or attitudes that minimize others can’t be allowed.

Your company’s corporate values and vision framework should provide the guardrails for how employees should treat others and expect to be treated. Let that define authenticity in your organization.

What should authenticity look like on your teams?
Let’s talk about leadership behaviors that support employee engagement.