Which of the following two people do you think is most authentic?
Eva, who always says exactly how she feels – even to the point of using bad language to show the strength of her reactions. She talks openly about her personal life, cries in meetings, dances on tables at office parties, and is as likely to have colleagues hugging her in gratitude as shouting at her in anger. She's passionate and open about every aspect of her job.
Or Joe, who never lets his emotions loose at work, and gets everything done with the minimum of fuss. He's clear about what he will and will not do for others. He doesn't talk about his private life much, so meetings with him are focused and efficient. He doesn't like parties and usually doesn't go. But during office hours he's a calm, confident and kind member of the team.
Who's being more authentic at work?
I once worked at a radio station with both Eva and Joe (I've just changed their names). And at the time, I'd have said that Eva was the authentic one, honest about her experiences and emotions, and that Joe was fairly inauthentic, since he kept his "real self" hidden.
But, having listened to our latest Mind Tools Expert Voices podcast, my views have changed.
Looking back now, I think that they were both authentic in many ways.
However, both of them could also have made their authenticity work more in their favor – and in mine.
In each Mind Tools Expert Voices episode, my colleague Rachel Salaman tackles a particular workplace topic with the help of some well-qualified guests. Episode 8 explores all aspects of authenticity, including the question of how much authenticity we should aim for.
Several of Rachel's guests point out that authenticity will always be hard to pin down, because it's about "being yourself" – and that's different for everyone. We all have unique personalities, including how gregarious we are, how we connect with others, and how much of ourselves we're happy to share. As award-winning CEO Sabrina Horn puts it, "Authenticity is like beauty: it's in the eye of the beholder. You have to decide for yourself what your core values are and who you are and what you stand for."
So authenticity involves self-knowledge, and the strength to stay true to yourself. Harvard's Amy Edmondson tells Rachel that it also requires the right environment – somewhere to feel "psychologically safe." What we have to ask ourselves, she says, is: "Do I feel OK around here? Is this a place where I can bring myself forward?"
For us to be open, honest, and fully engaged at work, our organizations need to be authentic, too. As Professor Gareth Jones says, "You want the organization to give you the chance to show your brightness and cleverness and innovation and creativity. Allowing people to show their skill and flourish is exactly what builds a great business."
Whatever authenticity means in practice – for people, and the places where they work – there's broad agreement that it's a good thing. "That's how we're going to get more rigorous decisions," says author Frances Frei. "That's how we're going to be able to do things faster... do things at higher quality."
According to Annie McKee, who wrote the book "How to Be Happy at Work," being authentic "... helps us withstand the pressures that are inherent in our workplaces today."
Eva and Joe were both successful people, leading high-profile projects and progressing quickly in their careers.
And I think that, in different ways, they both gained a lot from staying true to themselves.
Eva was great at expressing her feelings, and encouraged others to be open and "real." Her candor was attractive and often persuasive to clients. And while she brought plenty of fun to the table, she was also able to have tough conversations when necessary. As Amy Edmondson tells Rachel, authenticity is "... not only saying nice things. It's about being candid. And if we aren't open and willing to take interpersonal risks, our organizations will face much bigger risks."
Joe's authenticity, on the other land, let him build a different kind of trust. He stuck to his own values of clarity and consistency, which gave an organized, predictable air to office life. You could rely on him: not to make you laugh, or let you in on his world outside of work, but to do his job well – and support you to do yours. He was good at what Professor Gretchen Spreitzer calls "job crafting": forging a role that increasingly matched his personality and purpose.
But Joe struggled to engage with people. He may have known himself well, but he never got to know the rest of us, and we didn't feel comfortable sharing anything personal with him. OK, he didn't like parties, and he held his ground on that. But that meant we could never celebrate as a full team.
Tim Baker says that authenticity involves "... genuinely engaging people in conversations around how we might make the workplace better, more effective, faster, safer, and all of those sorts of things." Joe always had a plan that he was happy with, but he wasn't interested in getting our insights or ideas.
Meanwhile, for all her fun and frankness, Eva often put the rest of us on edge. She was unpredictable, and her moods often dominated the day. She may have she showed that it was OK to open up, but she left little room for anyone else to do that too.
On the podcast, Amy Edmondson explains what can happen when people's authenticity is limited by others. "Not only do they hold back but they don't feel engaged. You know, their heart's not in it. And sometimes they don't feel as good about themselves."
So how do we achieve just the right amount of authenticity at work?
Author Frances Frei recommends that people like Eva "trim" their authenticity. "If your whole authenticity isn't a problem for your showing up but, wow, we just don't need to see that final 20 percent... I think it's a totally reasonable thing to do, to keep that 20 percent at home. It won't be inauthentic."
And Professor Gareth Jones tells people like Joe to be a little less self-possessed, and to find more similarities and connections with others. "We are not just saying 'be yourself.' You have to be yourself skillfully. Too much difference and things fall apart."
There are infinite ways to be authentic. And organizations need to make us all feel safe to be ourselves, if we're to do our best, to enjoy our jobs, and in turn to build businesses that people trust. In the words of Sabrina Horn, "'Fake it till you make it' is the worst business advice ever!"
But we should also take an honest look at the impact of our authenticity. Like Eva, it's possible to be too open; and like Joe, too secure in what works for us alone. We should be prepared to "trim" our instinctive approach at times, and to use authenticity skillfully, to get the balance right.
That way, we can be ourselves, but help others to be their best selves at work, too.
Mind Tools Club Members and Corporate Licensees can listen to the full Expert Voices podcast now.
If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including a range of audio features. For corporate licensing, ask for a demo with one of our team.
What do you think is the right level of authenticity to aim for? Why is it beneficial to be authentic at work? Are there times when it's particularly powerful to be yourself? And when should you "trim" your authenticity – for the good of others, and yourself? Please share your thoughts, below.
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