Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why Wouldn't You Want to be Authentic at Work?

Herminia Ibarra suggests in her 2015 article ‘The Authenticity Paradox’ in the Harvard Business Review that “a too rigid definition of authenticity can get in the way of effective leadership” where she lists three examples and the problems they can pose;
The first is “being true to yourself: Which self? We have many selves, depending on the different roles that we play in life. We evolve and even transform ourselves with experience in new roles. How can we be true to a future self that is still uncertain and unformed?”
But being truly authentic recognises the different roles we may ‘play’ as Herminia phrases it – where at the outset I’m not convinced ‘play’ and ‘authenticity’ belong together. If we are genuinely authentic people then we recognise how we ‘operate’ in different situations, are happy to be open about the different styles we may adopt and are well grounded in respect of our strengths and weaknesses in these different situations.
Transforming ourselves through our careers doesn’t stop us being authentic – and we can be true to a future self as ‘we’ know the kind of employees, managers, leaders we want to become and again are happy to be open about it as well as the ‘concerns’ we might have about that future self. Truly authentic people use the vision of their ‘future self’ to help them develop – where these employees are often driven to ‘plan/suggest’ their own personal development significantly more than other employees that hide their authentic self to play the corporate game – where these unauthentic people are unsure of the ‘future self’ they want to become and allow their development to be led by the organisation.
Her second example is “maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do. You lose credibility and effectiveness as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel, especially when you are unproven.”
Again there are inconsistencies in this statement – for example, the suggestion that you lose credibility and effectiveness as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel, lacks substance, as authenticity doesn’t imply that you do this in the first place. Authenticity by its very definition allows you to tell people, for example, that there are certain operational issues you can’t discuss for whatever reason or tell your team that how you feel personally isn’t important to the required goal – this is still being authentic as long as you are consistent too.
Also some may argue that the time to be fully transparent is when you are unproven – as it allows your team to ‘understand’ your actions and approach more clearly; and allows them along with your manager to give more authentic feedback on your approach. If you’re hiding your real self as you’re developing as a leader – then the feedback will create unnecessary problems as you have to either explain yourself or become more authentic.
Herminia’s third example is “making values-based choices. When we move into bigger roles, values that were shaped by past experiences can lead us astray. For instance ‘tight control over operating details’ might produce authentic but wrong-headed behaviour in the face of new challenges.”
But again there are inconsistencies with this example too. For instance organisations should have their own corporate values that don’t change as you move up the corporate ladder – employees should ensure that their personal values meet the corporate values when they join the organisation – though more often than not this is more of an afterthought, or something employees learn once they’ve joined their new employer. Though to be honest if the interview process is handled professionally each party should be clear that their values aren’t just clear and understood – but that they match as well.
‘Tight control over operating details’ is a very strange value, regardless whether it’s a personal or corporate value. It seems to describe a management style which would contradict with normal organisational values like empowerment, trust, etc.
It will be a sad day for business and students preparing to enter business, if ‘corporate advisors’ start, or rather continue to suggest that employees and employers shouldn’t be authentic in work all the time – as this will lead to a distrusting culture which will create a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair and distrust in all aspects of the business and eventually lead to a lack of authenticity, being replaced by corporate politics and game playing.
Leaders need to treat their employees as mature and trustworthy if they want to optimise their future sustainable growth – failure to do this will take us back to the days of command and control leadership, distrusting organisations, employees working with their own futures in mind (and not that of their organisation) – which leads to the two-headed corporate image; the false external one of this happy and content organisation given to customers, suppliers and other external stakeholders and the real internal image that wrecks of infighting, back-stabbing and command and control bullying.
There are still two very distinct types of organisations – the first has a positive culture that makes transparency and authenticity easy and natural behaviours at all levels of the organisation and then sadly there are still too many negative organisational cultures that create environments that aren’t conducive to being authentic and ‘force’ employees to play corporate games to ensure their survival.
It’s up to each one of us to ‘show’ the real benefits of being authentic – as even in the negatives cultures, individuals will learn that you are someone who they can trust and rely on and in the end you will come out a winner, as will the organisation.
Ibarra, H. (2015). The Authenticity Paradox. Harvard Business Review; Jan-Feb; p.52-59.