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Authenticity in the Workplace
Being you at work without putting yourself out of work
Jamie Walters & Sarah Fenson The concept of "authenticity" is peppering leadership and management-development literature at a pace similar to the self-help craze of the past decade. Unfortunately, the concept and the practice have the makings of a workplace collision. How so? Social and legal boundaries can differ greatly from any one person's sense of humor, values, perceptions and judgments. In short, being authentic requires a balance between you and your environment, as does all effective communication. While management coaches might perpetuate the authenticity craze, at least in theory, it's not until individuals overlay the concept with their workplace reality that they can balance authenticity with on-the-job practices.

A precarious balance

Balancing your authenticity with workplace boundaries might seem like stealing from Peter to pay Paul. If you're supposed to be authentic, why would you change anything to fit into someone else's norms? Isn't this being false, particularly if you just don't feel like conforming? Not necessarily. If creating lasting, meaningful relationships with people is an authentic goal, for example, why would you routinely jeopardize relationships just to say what's on your mind? After all, being needed by and connected with others is a basic human interest. Likewise, if you truly enjoy your current work, why would you go against an established workplace norm (providing it's ethical, of course)? Are those the actions of someone being fully authentic?

Aside from the desire for personal mastery, a more meaningful career, and a bridge between who you want to be and how you act, there are some compelling practical reasons why you'll want to consider balancing authenticity with workplace boundaries:

  • Quality time: Working a 40-hour week from your 21st birthday to your 65th, you'll spend approximately 88,000 hours at work. If you're not being authentic here, when exactly are you planning on being the "real you"?

  • Fewer legal issues: Most businesses have clear, unbendable rules regarding employee behavior. Should your authenticity cross one of those boundaries, say in a case of sexual harassment, you could jeopardize your career and your reputation.

  • Greater understanding: Generally speaking, there are a variety of definitions for authenticity, from "honesty" to "being calm and centered with themselves and the world around them." However, in the workplace, a person can be honest without alienating everyone and learn skills to participate both productively and authentically.This understanding of yourself and your interactions with others helps refine your experience and define a state of authenticity that blends both your intentions and workplace requirements.

  • Reduced conflict: The workplace - or life, for that matter - isn't always best served if we are seemingly calm, but not genuinely so. Similarly, just because it might feel authentic in-the-moment to express yourself, your perceptions may not be correct and your urges may not be appropriate, so external norms can be a handy check-and-balance. There are requirements for being a responsible, civil citizen within a community, whether the community is work, church, social group or neighborhood. If you're not skillfully balancing these two "worlds," - internal and external - you'll be in conflict with others and within yourself, which can lead to stress and all of its fallout.

    Communication a key part of the equation

    Much of the literature professing authenticity focuses solely on the individual and the benefits he or she reaps from being authentic. As we've suggested, being authentic involves other people as much as it does a particular individual keen on expressing himself! Our environs and social norms shape our responses, actions, reactions and defenses that shield or hide our authentic selves from the outside world.

    That said, it's clear to see how our communication skill affects our level of effective authenticity. For example, the same honest feedback delivered in a respectful manner is far different than the same comment screamed at someone in a public forum. Are both authentic? Sure, if a person is sharing her core personality and opinions. Does the communication method and skill level make a difference in how that authenticity is received - and either understood, despised, hurtful or damaging? Without a doubt.

    We raise the issue here as food for thought, strongly encouraging you to examine your communication style and how you might refine it to become more authentic without alienating the rest of humanity, or at least some portion of it! (See the links listed below for starters.)

    Balance your authenticity with your work

    If you feel pulled between your authentic self and your work or workplace norms, put these tips into action to begin steadying yourself on your perceived authenticity see-saw:

  • Identify parallels between your work and authentic self: See your career as a way to achieve your personal goals while helping the organization achieve its goals. Write down the ways that you are able to be authentic, and practice authenticity at work. For example, if not lying or treating others humanely are core beliefs for you, you can certainly find ample exercise for these in the workplace. Include the benefits you and your colleagues glean from these actions. On the flip side, contemplate what you see as preventing you from being authentic at work. Is this a perceived conflict or actual circumstance? Then determine actions that can help you overcome those barriers.

  • Be clear about workplace boundaries: If you're unsure of what the workplace boundaries are, ask. Without a mutual understanding between the employer and the employee, it is difficult to achieve a balance when the key targets are moving. The same is true with colleagues, who might have personal or social norms that differ from the established workplace boundaries.

  • Learn from mentors: Identify the person(s) who you see as authentic and successful in the workplace. Have periodic conversations with this person to gauge your progress, learn tips and glean honest feedback. Role-playing and mini case studies can be very effective in boosting confidence in carrying out authenticity and trying new tools.

  • Evaluate your career: Don't be afraid to examine your career if you're having difficulty matching the way you want to be living with how you make a living. This doesn't have to mean that you're looking for a new job. You might need to recalibrate your goals, refresh your mindset or take on a different role. Some people may find a treasure trove of opportunity just by re-examining their current job with an adjusted mindset. Others might need to find that opportunity elsewhere. The point is to ensure that you're not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, where you'll never accomplish authenticity. If you feel unable to do this solo, find a career counselor, personal coach, workshop or group of similarly interested people with whom to discuss the possibilities and options.

  • Refresh your communication wellspring: Don't let your communication skills atrophy, and don't assume your communication skills are so wonderful they need no polish. As mentioned above, without these skills, your authentic behavior might be perceived completely opposite to your intention. True authenticity isn't just about saying the first thing that enters one's mind, but about being honest with oneself and the world in a way that enriches one's relationships and experience.

    This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization. Please use it mindfully. The most effective leadership, interpersonal or organizational communication plans are those that have been tailored to meet your unique needs, so don't hesitate to contact us info@ivysea.com or get assistance from a qualified adviser.

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