What Does it Really Mean to be Authentic at Work?

There has been so much talk recently about fearless authenticity and bringing our whole selves to work—but what does that really mean? I find when I pose that question to groups of leaders, there is a struggle to articulate the balance. And, in the spirit of fearless authenticity, I’m not going to lie: discussions about authenticity often veer into hyperbole and stereotypes that imply being real at work means crying openly about our deepest personal problems. Therefore, I find it urgent we try to get a handle on this

Balancing authenticity and professional behavior depends on our social intelligence and readings of the nuances of particular work cultures, but here are some tips on how to strike that balance effectively:

Find Room: You should feel the psychological safety to contribute to what others have free reign to discuss. For instance, if people are chatting about families and holidays, there should be no reason why you can’t contribute the way you define your family and traditions, even if you’re the only one who celebrates a particular holiday or has family that looks like yours.

Embrace Context: Different situations call for different levels of authenticity. Assess the environment you’re in and adjust your behavior accordingly. For example, your behavior in a formal business meeting may differ from how you interact with colleagues during a team-building exercise. In other words, stick to results-focused interactions when situations call for them–and incorporate more personal, relationship-building behaviors at other times.

Establish Boundaries: While being authentic, it’s important to set boundaries. Not everything about you needs to be shared in a professional setting. Determine what aspects of your personality are appropriate to express in certain contexts. I find that people are quick to announce their fears, food allergies—and even their political beliefs—to assert their individuality first, which can seem like aggressive territory marking. Instead, you should pause to figure out how your uniqueness can successfully complement the social fabric of a particular team or group before declaring it.

Communicate Effortlessly: Tailor your communication style to suit the situation while still staying true to yourself. I tell people all of the time, “Do what you will with the skills, tools and wisdom I present—change the names and their applications if you have to in order to make them fit comfortably. Because if you don’t make them your own, you won’t use them. And using what you learn should be the goal.”

Solicit Feedback: Ask trusted colleagues or mentors about how you fare on this issue. They can provide valuable insights into whether you’re striking the right balance between authenticity and professionalism. It’s not easy, but listening to feedback that makes us uncomfortable is a great way to grow.

Lead by Example: If you’re in a leadership position, demonstrate authenticity in your actions and decisions. You set the tone! If people don’t pick up on your actions as expectations, feel free to discuss the balance of authenticity and professionalism you desire with them.

Remember, authenticity and professionalism are not mutually exclusive. By understanding yourself, your environment, and the expectations of your profession, you can successfully balance both.

Guest Blog by John Mancuso

Authentic Communication Matters

Learn more about John’s next supervisor skills course, Rockin’ Your Supervisory Role.

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