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Authenticity – how much is too much?

You may have missed the post announcement from Merriam-Webster naming ‘Authentic' as the word of the year for 2023. I have been reflecting a lot on this recent post and the misuse and misunderstanding we often seem to have at times with this word and the impact it can (directly or indirectly) have on organizations.

It seems for the last few years, leaders, employees and organizations have been pushing an agenda/task of “showing up to work authentically.” The underlying intention is positive—to create an environment where individuals feel free to bring their true selves into their workplace. By showing up as yourself, you allow others to show up as they are. In so doing, the more authentic everyone is at work, the better your workplace environment can be and the more likely your organization will produce great work. This intention has propelled many deep and meaningful initiatives around wellness, inclusion, interpersonal relationships, communication, and psychological safety. While these conversations, policy changes and environmental/cultural shifts are important, ongoing, and necessary, being truly authentic is not an easy thing to do. Making space for everyone to be their authentic selves can be extremely challenging and comes with its own set of drawbacks. You want to be yourself but might fear some elements of your personality or your actions might impact others negatively, or the authentic truth for someone equates to behaving inappropriately or unprofessionally for the other. As a leader trying to encourage authentic living, how do you balance authenticity and accountability?

What if one of your staff members is not a punctual person?  If that is their authentic self, is it fair to require them to meet deadlines, arrive on time for meetings, and work within office hours? How do you encourage authenticity while also creating a harmonious and safe workplace? What is the balance for leadership of being vulnerable but not oversharing?

These kinds of questions and scenarios can create barriers, confusion, fears, perceptions, ramifications and unintended consequences ex. disengagement, resistance, disinterest, disingenuous actions, and workplace contention. 

Here are three ways you can demonstrate authenticity at work and make a positive impact while holding boundaries and creating a culture of respect and accountability:

1. Develop and foster self-awareness.

Authenticity begins with self-awareness: knowing who you are, your values, your purpose, understanding your emotions, and your personal strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness is also being mindful of how you and your actions are perceived and received by others.

2. Share aspects of your personal life mindfully.

You don’t have to leave your personal life or your personality at the door. You don’t have to become a different person or put on a facade as soon as your computer turns on, or as you clock in for a shift. People are not machines and if the pandemic taught us anything, we know that humans are multi-faceted. We have family responsibilities, relationships to manage, our mental health, our physical health, and other life commitments, as well as trying to navigate global unrest or financial strain. We are impacted by these and many other factors. These factors will influence how we show up to work each day.  However, you do not need to give a running play-by-play of every feeling, action, barrier, or complication in your life, especially if you have not spent time processing what they mean to you. This can create a sense of emotional dumping on others, awkward interactions, [JA1] [JA2] a loss of respect, and cause some extreme discomfort from your staff.  However, by being open about a few key aspects of your life mindfully, you allow your colleagues to connect with you on a human level.

3. Model the behaviour and language

As a leader or as an ambassador in your workplace for authenticity, what you model creates the tone and sets the example. As you practice and model boundaries, self-awareness and appropriate sharing and communication at work, you will find that you get what you give. Using proper language, modelling mindful sharing, respecting others' sharing and giving feedback as necessary builds trust and a culture that allows folks to show up authentically while being safe. Blaming, shaming, and using life as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour will also set the tone and will be reflected.  For instance, consider a scenario where you have an early morning meeting and arrive barely on time, visibly frazzled and rushed. Instead of delving into elaborate details of a chaotic morning, take a moment to calmly share a concise overview of the truth: "I just had a challenging drop-off at daycare with my child."  If you need a moment or two to gather yourself, ask for that, but do not make excuses or go into all the nitty-gritty details of how a shoe was thrown at you and you had to go on a search and destroy mission for a glove or a teddy bear before you could leave the house.  It is important to notice the nuanced difference between sharing personal elements of your day vs. blaming and using the element as an excuse. By intentionally sharing relevant personal elements that impact your perceptions of workload (at home and work) without derailing the focus or making the meeting about your challenges, you contribute to a workplace culture that values authenticity and maintains a professional, solution-oriented approach.

Authenticity takes practice and the balance is a fine line, one that we all need to carefully monitor, respond to, and have ongoing conversations about.

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