For many years, I have been saying to anyone who would listen, “We’re making a big mistake telling everyone to bring their ‘full and authentic selves to work.”
Often the response is, “How can you say that? I want everyone to be comfortable at work. Authenticity is critical.”
I always think, have you met my full and authentic self? Which one??
- There’s my full and authentic self that is a proud gay man.
- There’s my full and authentic self that loves to be kooky – taking very little seriously about … well, anything.
- There’s my full and authentic self, that drops the “f-bomb” every few words.
- There’s my full and authentic self that is the activist – that pushes emotional buttons and envelopes with many people in working towards social justice and equity.
- Oh – and there’s my full and authentic self that is passionate, dedicated, and disciplined about giving the best work effort possible. I think that may be the one that you want … right?
In my world, it’s inevitable that I face an “authenticity challenge” on a regular basis. For example, when I board an airplane for a long flight, and I find myself sitting next to someone who wants to chat and I have to decide whether to disclose my sexual orientation as a gay man. Often, my seatmate asks me about my “wife”. And often, I let them know that I’m divorced and that my wuzbin (a great term my mother shared with me – apparently from Judge Judy) and I are great friends.
In my integrity, I share that I am gay because in general, that is how I want to be effective. I want to share that part of my identity with someone whose relationship I value. However, that is not always the case. There have been a few times when my spidey-sense gaydar tells me that my seatmate is not someone I feel safe in disclosing my sexuality. Instead, I may evade the question, not answer it, or give a vague response – “I’m not married – divorced, actually – and good friends with my ex.”
In those rare occurrences, my decision to be effective is centered around my own psychological safety – choosing to stay effectively closeted. Am I still in my integrity? Absolutely, 100%. Am I still being authentic? Yes, I believe so – I am making a choice on what my ultimate goal is. In this case, my goal is to get through the 3+ hours on the plane, feeling comfortable and secure.
Recently, Adam Grant tweeted his best insight ever:
“Authenticity is not about being unfiltered. It’s about staying true to your principles. The goal isn’t to voice every opinion you hold. It’s to stand up for ideas that are consistent with your ideals.”
Finally! I hate to say it … but I told you so!
Of course, we want to encourage everyone to feel comfortable being themselves – let’s be done with “passing” – but still … do you really want me to bring my FULL and authentic self to work?
The question is not about AUTHENTICITY and “being right” – it’s about AUTHORITY and being effective.
The question to turn on is, “Who is it that you need to be – and what is it that you have to do – to be most effective right now – and stay in your integrity?”
In The Authenticity Paradox, an article in the Harvard Business Review by Herminia Ibarra, we read: “Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. But… a simplistic understanding of what authenticity means can limit leaders’ growth and impact.”
In fact, “feeling like a fake” can be a sign of growth!
All too often, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. But few jobs allow us to do that for long. The HBR article explains how leaders can develop an “adaptively authentic” style by experimenting with many different leadership approaches. It’s OK to change tactics from one day to the next, she says. That’s not being fake; it’s how we figure out what’s right for the challenges and circumstances we face.
It’s time we threw out “authenticity” as the gold standard in our work environments. That license to be a bull in a china shop – to fire all one’s “true self” torpedoes – is not smart. Instead, let’s start asking everyone to be clear in their values, stay within their integrity, and look to be most effective in being the person and valued colleague/boss that everyone wants. Being “effective” is at the heart of why we value “authenticity”.