What does it mean to be authentic at work?

by | Jan 25, 2023 | Careers, Leadership, Values

Authenticity has resurfaced as a buzzword in the workplace. In the early 2000s, authentic leadership became popular in response to Bill George’s 2003 book called Authentic Leadership. Leaders found that being more genuine and transparent helped them build trust among their followers. This meant showing a new level of vulnerability, such as admitting mistakes or sharing their weaknesses. It also meant leading with values and having the courage to follow their own path instead of letting the expectations of others guide them. It opened up a whole new way of being that allowed people to follow their hearts rather than feel compelled to go along with the status quo.

Today, the authenticity buzz has expanded to include being able to bring your whole self to work and being accepted for who you are. People want to feel it is okay for them to express themselves and not feel like they have to hide aspects of themselves at work. It is now common for employees to share personal information such as their anxieties, sexual identities, and inner most thoughts and quandaries. Diversity and inclusion are expected organizational values and to deny someone from expressing themselves can result in legal action.

Authenticity can be powerful when practiced appropriately. People tend to be happier when they feel comfortable being true to themselves. Authentic leadership can motivate people to perform and be loyal to the organization. Authentic communication can also solidify trust in teams and in relationships across the organization.

When authenticity is exercised recklessly, however, it can cause serious problems. I have seen many leaders become derailed because they say whatever comes to mind and it is either offensive or unpopular with others or it goes against the organization’s mission and values. I’ve also seen employees at all levels “overshare” their troubles, leading others to believe they are unfit to perform tasks, and eventually they are either overlooked for advancement or let go entirely.

The key to being authentic at work is to consider the context. For example, authentic leaders are not afraid to talk about their failures, but they choose which failures to share, and they do it in a constructive way. They may reveal a mistake they made because of a shortcoming, but they will say what they learned from the experience and why they are not continuing to make the same mistake today.

Another example is when people authentically express aspects of themselves, opinions, or things they do outside of work. It takes awareness and self-discipline to navigate the line of what is okay and what is not okay to be open about at work. Generally, topics that can make individuals feel unsafe are best avoided. If unsure, it may be wise to ask.

Having discussed the limitations of authenticity, it is now safe to describe how to become more authentic.

The first step to being authentic is to know who you are and what values are most important to you. If you haven’t taken time to self-reflect or you’re in transition or it’s been a while since you’ve thought about this, you may not know. Now might be a good time to evaluate. A simple way to start is to list your values and prioritize them. Your values may include how you think people should be treated, how important honesty is to you, what fairness is, how important money is, how important relationships are, and so on.  It is useful to reevaluate periodically because your values may shift over time.

Being self-aware also means being in touch with your strengths and weaknesses. You can make a list of these too and take some time to accept them, especially your weaknesses. Pick one or two and practice sharing them with people you trust. See what their reactions are and learn how to share your weaknesses in a way that inspires confidence in you.