Authenticity in the Workplace

| by Staci Barfield

As my grandmother would say, “These are trying times.”

Nearly every person I have engaged with recently acknowledges that their emotions have been all over the place in the last few months. And, unfortunately, it’s the negative feelings – fear, loneliness, uncertainty, confusion, disbelief, disgust, anger, sadness, and even rage – that seem most prevalent. Yet, in many cases, we are still expected to show up for others and be personable, positive, and productive.

This paradox has made me think a lot about authenticity. This is a word with a lot of definitions, but the one I like best comes from an article in Psych Central entitled “Ways of Living an Authentic Life”:

“Being authentic means coming from a real place within. It is when our actions and words are congruent with our beliefs and values. It is being ourselves, not an imitation of what we think we should be or have been told we should be.”

So how does this play out at work, especially when our emotions and the expectations of others don’t match?

To start, your personal values must align with your organization’s values. You must not only believe in the work, but you should be comfortable with how the work is being done. Contrary to the popular saying, the means do not always justify the ends. If your values and that of your employer aren’t in sync, there are at least two options: find a workplace that does align with your personal values, or initiate efforts to make changes to the existing company values.

Most often, however, employer/employee values do align but they are sometimes not being lived into. When you witness words or actions that are not congruent with the stated values of your organization, call them out. Speaking up is an authentic behavior. Realize that it’s okay to say you are uncomfortable, disagree, or take offense to comments or actions. In fact, it is only when behaviors are challenged that change can occur.

It is important to understand that authenticity doesn’t mean baring your soul. In “The Authenticity Paradox”, one manager is quoted as saying, “Being authentic doesn’t mean that you can be held up to the light and people can see right through you.” The balance between what you share in the workplace and what you don’t can be tricky. But what you do share should be real.

Is your workplace ready for authenticity?

Expecting employees to be authentic means suspending judgement and being willing to accept conflict, vulnerability, and imperfection. It means there will be challenges to “the party line.” It means recognizing that there isn’t just one way, one train of thought, one right answer. It means being open-minded and willing to learn. Promoting authenticity can be hard, but it is important and worthwhile.

In her TEDx Talk “Authenticity in the Workplace”, Courtney Bryant, who is currently a Diversity and Inclusion Associate at Ford Motor Company, says the inability to be authentic at work leads to physical stress, psychological stress, lower quality work relationships, and work dissatisfaction.

However, authenticity can’t be forced. One group I know started a meeting that included people from different organizations by asking each participant to talk about their feelings related to the current protests. In a setting where trust has not been established, this can be uncomfortable and inappropriate, as it was for at least two meeting attendees who shared their thoughts with me.

2020 has taught us that we have the power to change, whether it is initiated by force or desire. My hope is that, as a people, we promote authenticity in both our personal and professional lives. Another passage from “Ways of Living an Authentic Life” sums up how we might achieve this:

“Living authentically is not stagnant: it is constantly shifting and taking on new forms. If we truly believe in living an authentic life, then we must continually be learning about ourselves, challenging old beliefs, sorting through our baggage. It is about learning to face fears and doubts, to be able to reach deeply within ourselves to find out what makes our heart sing, our spirit soar. It is finding where our authentic self feels the most alive, free and unburdened — and then having the courage to live from this place.”

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