The problem with authenticity at work

Last updated Jul 25, 2022 | Managing Introverts

The problem with authenticity at work

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“Be an authentic leader”,get authentic team members”, the modern drive to authenticity is driving me up the wall. If it is so obviously good why do hundreds of articles appear each month urging us to embrace authenticity at work (and anywhere else you care to mention)? Do you ever think that when something seems oversold, it usually is? Then when I was told that introverts are less authentic than extroverts, I flipped.

Is authenticity another stupid buzzword, or the primary goal for a leader seeking team performance?

Insta intimacy

The increase in collaborative working teams, cross functional teams and flexible responses seem to suggest more “intimacy” (isn’t that what being authentic seems to be all about?) is required.

In fact where short term project teams are put together, instant intimacy can seem relevant.

Or is this just an expectation of work culture developing along the social media and reality TV worlds where we share incessantly?

Where’s the line between sharing and over sharing and how’s it judged?

Ego introverts and selfies


What’s the problem with authenticity?

The authenticity we’re being told to seek appears to demand we’re honest all the time; this can lead to problems.

Can a group of people really agree with everything, as opposed to being aligned around it?

Self-disclosure, if it shows you’re not aligned with company, or team values or culture, could hurt your reputation, and damage team building – especially if the timing is wrong.

Disclosure about others, “being authentic”, “being honest with others” or unvarnished feedback, can lead to damaging feedback to other team members. Feedback when requested and handled well can be good, when not requested is normally a damaging overspill of ego (you might like to read “Giving feedback, does it damage or do good”)


What does being authentic “actually” mean?

Authenticity, bringing our whole selves to work, letting our colleagues see the whole person, being frank in meetings.

I’ve heard many things along the lines of “If you’re leaving part of you behind when you work, you’re not helping your team or being authentic.” But doesn’t everybody, all the time leave part of themselves at home? Who wants to know every part of somebody’s home struggles (relationship problems, decorating, train spotting or whatever)?

Compartmentalising is perfectly normal and a good thing.

Imagine going to work where there’s a laddish culture and you adapt to it, so people don’t ‘take the mick’ (possibly worse). Doing this would be to squash your personality into a company culture which isn’t really you; bad for your mental wellbeing and probably reduces your effectiveness at work.

Fitting your personality into a different culture is bad and seems “inauthentic”; so authenticity involves some genuine alignment  between your personality and the culture (and no fear for non alignment).


Are introverts less authentic?

Three interesting points from surveys I’ve completed:

  1. Introverts are often more private and extroverts more likely to “let it all hang out there”. If being more private means less likely to tell everything, then they’re less authentic. However, I don’t think telling everything is what authentic really is.
  2. Introverts tend to be the quieter people in a group and may not always bother to say what they think – when they see no point in pushing into an already overloaded loud discussion. Is that authentically who they are, or would always butting in make them inauthentic?
  3. Most introverts I’ve surveyed value being part of a close community, or team (yet not “tribe”), where they feel valued and that they can add value. Quietness and privacy is not all about being aloof. When part of a close community introverts do share information about themselves. The concept of psychological safety comes to mind here.

‘I wanted to be part of a community, part of something people were building together’’

It’s an introvert myth that introverts are less authentic. Creating a psychologically safe workplace appears to come before expecting everybody to “be authentic”.


Is authenticity a good thing?

In 2012, Google embarked on a quest to discover how to build the “perfect team,” led by a manager in their People Analytics division. They found there was no magic mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds.

Psychological safety was shown to be the determining factor in why some teams outperformed others. When everyone feels safe in taking risks around their team members, and that they won’t be embarrassed or punished for doing so, “authenticity” and the perfect team were more likely to be created.

The other four elements in Google’s top five were:

  1. Dependability: Everyone completes work on time, to the right standard.
  2. Structure and clarity: All team members know have specific expectations, which they know. The expectations must be challenging yet attainable.
  3. Meaning: Everyone has a sense of purpose in their work (i.e., financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, etc.).
  4. Impact: All team members see how the result of their work contributes to the firm’s overall goals.


Authenticity at work – The Holy Grail?

Where authenticity is about:

  • Being able (safely) to not go along with toxic elements of company culture (for example laddish culture, sharing of inappropriate material and jokes).
  • Being able to (safely) take risks around team members, without fearing embarrassment or punishment
  • Being able to share elements of your life and views, as appropriate and not being expected to always share your views on procedures and colleagues (feedback).

Then yes, authenticity must be a good thing. Introversion is not in anyway a barrier to this. However, the prime thing for a leader to focus on has to be psychological safety in the team. Authenticity can follow that, not the other way around.

How are you working on the psychological safety in your team?

TLDR: The problem with authenticity at work

There’s a fundamental problem with the idea that being authentic at work is the solution to team performance and something a leader has to show and strive for. It’s an idea which has been overstated and seems to have more in common with the modern trend of over sharing and splurging personal feelings on social media.

Introverts are no more, or less authentic, than extroverts; even though they may spend less time-sharing personal views and feelings. In fact they value being part of a close knit team.

Looking at what authenticity is reveals that psychological safety at work needs to come first and that this is what a leader should strive for, rather than authenticity.

How are you working on the psychological safety in your team?

You may also like to read:

Or listen:

Gina Gardiner is well known for her leadership expertise and illuminates the way for enlightened leaders to create a more profitable & meaningful mission. Here’s our discussion on leadership and managing introverts.

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