There is so much talk about how we should be authentic at work at the moment. But what if we don’t want to be? And what if being authentic is not the right thing to do?
Jean Balfour shares in this podcast how it is important to ‘bring ourselves to work’ - however, sometimes it may be better for us to not share all, to be less vulnerable and to manage our authenticity to match our context.
Listen in to learn more about this and how to be contextually authentic.
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Hi everyone, and welcome to Making Sense of Work. I'm Jean Balfour, and today I'm going to explore the idea of authenticity and in full authenticity. You may have noticed that there's been a bit of a break in the podcast. Covid finally caught up with me, and my voice isn't still quite back to normal. I'm merely there, so please bear with me while I'm croaking and coughing. In the episode today, there's a lot being talked about, about how we should all strive to be authentic all the time, and I want to share with you today how I have a bit of a different take on authenticity. I'm gonna share how I see it. And how I think that we can be authentic in the best way for us. Before we dive into that, if you'd like to be kept informed about our offerings, you can sign up to our email@example.com. I'd also like to thank those of you who have rated and reviewed the podcast. I read all the reviews, and it's so helpful to help get a podcast out there. If you've particularly enjoyed an episode, please do share it with a friend or even rate and review it yourself. Brittany Brown says that authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest, the choice to let our true selves be seen. As I said, over the past few years, there's been this strong push for us to embrace authenticity, to be open, transparent, vulnerable about who we are. I think almost regardless of how this impacts ourselves first and foremost, and also about how it impacts others. At work. There's also been a strong push for this, for us to be vulnerable and open We're asked whether we're authentic as a leader or a colleague. Are we bringing our whole selves to work? Are we showing up exactly who we are now in so many ways? This is great at work. It brings us an opportunity to share our best selves, but it also brings some risks. Others may or may not accept my authenticity, and so I may be sharing something and it may be rejected, and so as Brene said, this is about choice. It's about a collection of choices. And because I've come to see this, I have become a bit cautious about authenticity, as I also believe it involves incredible courage for us to bring our whole selves to work and. Whilst it's probably better if I do, I may find it challenging. I may risk some shifts or movement happening, and I may want to think about how to find a way that's really best for me and best for my team, and best for the people I lead. About 15 years ago, I conducted some research interviewing over a hundred people on the impact of feeling safe to be themselves at work. And those that were able, that felt safe, showed increased happiness and higher performance in their job, and we could see a strong correlation to this. But there was a real key about this research that I don't think we dug into enough, which was that it was about feeling safe to be ourselves. And for many of us, we are not sure if we're safe. And so before we share ourselves and our vulnerabilities, we may want to know that it's going to be okay. An example that I often think about this is from a diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective, DEI perspective. If I feel that I'm an outsider at work, that I'm a bit different to the prevailing group in my team, what might be the impact of me bringing my whole self to work? Do I risk being further seen as different? Will I feel more of an outsider and do I want to do that? What will my choice be in that situation? As I've thought about this over the years, I've been thinking about this topic for years. I came to the concept of covering, so bear with me a little bit while I get a bit theoretical. Kenji Ishino is a legal scholar in New York, and he studied this idea of what he called covering. He built on work that was published in 1963 by a sociologist Irving Goffman and Goffman described. Covering is how when we as individuals have identities or parts of ourselves, which we fear being stigmatized, so we hide them. We protect our identity by adopting the behaviors and norms of the main group. If I give you an example, I once worked with a senior academic doctor who was really at the top of her game, who worked part-time. She had small children. She didn't tell her colleagues that she was part-time. She did things to make it look like she was full-time. She was concerned that they would not take her professional commitment seriously, and perhaps correctly. Academia is a very, very competitive world and commitment and overwork is often seen as a key to progressing. Goffman gave another great example of how President Franklin Roosevelt ensure he was always seated behind a table before the cabinet entered. He wasn't hiding his disability. Everyone knew he was in a wheelchair. However he was covering, he was making sure his disability was in the background of the interaction. Another example of this is work dress codes. Another form of covering. Most organizations have what's deemed an appropriate way to dress. Mostly this isn't written down, although there are organizations where it is written down, but there's a sort of code. Don't wear things that are too bright. Wear a tie. Don't wear a tie just to fit in to the team. I hadn't really thought about this much, about this dress code thing until I visited, uh, GlaxoSmith Klein's offices in London and I had to wait quite a long time for my client to arrive. And I was sitting in there, what they call the street, the very open plan area that's on the ground floor of the building. And while I was sitting there, I kind of became curious that there didn't appear to be a code. It was something I wouldn't normally have noticed, but I noticed it. People were dressed really differently. And then my client arrived and, uh, well I mentioned this to him'cause I was kind of curious about it. He was a, a diversity expert, so he was also curious about it. But then he said, see that man standing over there in the coffee queue, in his running gear, waiting to get his coffee? He's the CEO, apparently every morning he stood sweaty in the main atrium of the building after he'd been for his run looking like himself, and he was making an absolute point. He was taking the small act to give permission for people to come to work, dressed as they felt like. But this is really rare. Normally we have a code for work. So there are so many things that we could be covering and so many examples of covering our sexual orientation, our family story, the fact that we're introverted, our strengths, our weaknesses. I hear so many examples, people hiding that they don't think they went to the right school. Took this work further and said that the pressure to conform at work affects all of us. So he started thinking it affected minority groups, but when he did his research, he found that most people were covering something and not sharing it at work. Think about it for yourself now, what aspects of yourself do you hide at work? Or do you behave differently to fit in? Do you go out drinking with the team even though you'd prefer to be at home with your family or to be drinking with your friends? Do you hide something you perceive as a weakness? Are you not sharing strong opinions about a project you're working on? Are you covering them? Are you pretending to think your box is great when you are not sure why they're. In the role. So, so many ways. I think that covering helps us to make sense of this connection between authenticity and how much we are showing up. So back to authenticity. I think the idea that we should all be vulnerable and authentic all the time is problematic. That's my line on it. Some of us are covering for good reason, some because we simply don't wanna share all of ourselves with our work colleagues and some, because we are concerned that if we do, it will negatively impact how we are perceived at work. So how can we do this? How do we get this? Some authenticity models do suggest that we share all our feelings, all our values, everything. But I think for so many people, this doesn't work. Being always honest is hard, and I think a bit tiring. Sometimes it's releasing, but sometimes it's tiring. I'm reminded here of Martha Bag. You had a full year of absolutely no lying because of course lying is inauthentic. One study actually suggested that 60% of adults lie at least once within 10 minutes of a normal conversation. So we are all likely to be lying or just not quite telling the truth at some point. In Martha's case, this meant that if someone asked, are you upset with me? Even if she thought it would make things worse, she had to say yes if she was. And even though she writes extensively about integrity and about being true to ourselves within our culture, she actually doesn't recommend doing this full on authenticity, transparency and honesty brings with it some problems. Another example of this I think is real relevant to me. It's about sharing all of our feelings all the time. I'm a pretty open book on feelings, but even I've got better at choosing appropriate times to share them and other times to hold back. So authenticity is good, but too much may just that too much. Hermenia Ibarra from London Business School describes this as the authenticity paradox. She sees three components of authenticity, and alongside them they're challenges. So one component is being true to ourselves. Which bit of ourself, we have many versions of ourselves. Another component is maintaining strict consistency between what we say and what we do. That, you know, let's be real, none of us are that consistent. The final component is making values-based choices. But you know, as we've already seen, this may rub up a little bit against the prevailing culture, and we may notice our value and decide to go against it. There's a very public example of authenticity going wrong after the big oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico from an oil rig, which, uh, unfortunately led to the deaths of the workers on the oil reg and sent huge amounts of oil onto the coastline. This impacted thousands of people's lives and also of course had a huge impact on the environment. The then bp, c e o famously said in the media interview that the amount of oil was relatively tiny in a very big ocean, and that he wanted his life back. Now, this was clearly a problem for him saying this. He was triggered in the moment, spoke his truth. He was authentic, but actually this was not the place for him to be honest and authentic. And of course it had a big backlash for him, unfortunately. So how do we get this balance right? I really love the idea of thinking about contextual authenticity. This is the idea of me being appropriately authentic in the context I'm in at the moment, and looking for what feels right with me. As Susan David says, authenticity is not take me as I'm like it or not. She goes on to say, it is the integration of our values, emotions, and behaviors, so that they shine their light in the world. It's the ultimate expression of intentionality and wisdom, and I want to thank Susan because I think intentionality and wisdom is key here. We can choose. To be intentional and wise about how we show up, making choices about which parts of ourselves we share, in which situation we can choose what it means to be our authentic selves in each situation. And we can choose what that means for how we behave or what we share. We can choose to cover parts of ourselves if we are not sure about sharing them, and we can choose to show up authentically when it is good for us and good for the people around us. This requires us, of course, to be very aware of ourselves. What is true for me, knowing who I am and what authentic means for me. But then I'm better able to make a choice in the moment. It does require me to be honest with myself. And then decide how much I'm going to share, and we can become more aware of how much we are sharing of ourself and the choices we are making, and then decide if we want to be authentic or not. Am I acting in line with my values and what I want others to see or not? And if I'm not, is that okay? How aware am I of it and am I making a choice? For Example, if you are a leader, you can consider what of yourself you are okay to share, don't personal stories. You can think about what will be helpful for the team and what are. With sharing, you can choose when to be transparent and when it isn't appropriate or doesn't feel right for you as a team member. If you are struggling with a colleague, you can choose whether or not to share your struggle, and if you choose to, you can think about doing it in a way that's good for both of you. And if you choose not to, you can hold it and see that you are making a choice. So I believe that. Create an idea of how authentic we wanna be, how we want to be perceived, how this is aligned with our values, how it connects to our ambitions and the context we're working in. And we can work to that. We can work towards being contextually authentic. So for me, authenticity isn't about being true to myself all the time. It's not some idea of like it or lump it. It's really about what's best for me and best for the people I'm with in this situation. So I hope that's given you some food for thought around authenticity, and I encourage you to consider this as you're thinking for yourself about what does authentic mean to me and what, if anything, do I want to change?