Contributed by Leslie Williams, Author of Leading With Grit And Grace: Smart Power for Women Leaders
Authenticity at work: oxymoron? Pipe dream? Many of us long to be more honest and true to ourselves at work. Yet in most organizations, authenticity is a risky proposition.
Here’s a quick exercise that illustrates why that might be so. Identify a current work situation that you think is being badly handled but that you haven’t confronted. If you had a free pass to react authentically – with no threat of repercussion – what would you do or say? Now… if you actually did or said that, what do you think would happen? For many of us, that much honesty could constitute career suicide.
This is the double bind of authenticity. We want more of it, but we fear the vulnerability it can create. So we resign ourselves to the belief that authenticity is only possible in ‘enlightened’ organizations – which is certainly not where WE work.
The problem with authenticity lies in how we define it. Many people equate being authentic with being emotionally transparent. Defined thus, the authentic move in response to anger might be to give someone a piece of your mind. In a conflict, it might be to tell someone that they’re being selfish and short-sighted. This kind of honesty has its place; it can clear the air and let people know where you stand. But it can also backfire: escalating conflict, eroding trust and damaging reputations. You’re smart to be wary of that.
A New Definition of Authenticity
What if we defined authenticity differently: not as transparency of our thoughts and emotions, but rather as “speech and actions that arise from our deepest values”? That’s a very different proposition. It takes discipline, effort, and self-awareness. While this kind of honesty is more difficult, it allows us to honor ourselves and connect us with others, both at a deeper level.
What would that look like in practice? Gwen, a client of mine, is a living example. She was a self-employed consultant who had signed on as a subcontractor to a larger consulting firm. She was about to undertake her first assignment, and had negotiated the rates and terms for the project. The day before the work was set to begin, her phone rang. It was the firm’s project manager. He said, “Gwen, I hate tell you this, but we just got the final paperwork from our client. The signed contract amount is 30% less than they agreed to verbally. So although we promised you $X, we can only pay you 70% of that.”
Gwen was genuinely and legitimately furious. If she had defined “authenticity” simply as “full emotional disclosure,” Gwen would probably have responded with some pretty unsavory words. But with the client expecting work to begin the next day and her subcontracting relationship in its infancy, Gwen had a lot at stake. She wanted to be truthful in her response, but she also wanted to be effective. She called me to help her sort it out.
I asked her two questions; here’s how she worked with them.
1. What deeply-held values do you want your response to reflect? “This my first engagement with this firm, so I want my actions to communicate that I’m not a doormat and that this is not OK. Second, I believe that the people responsible for creating the problem should bear the consequences. Third, I want my actions to communicate empathy. This has put us all in a tough position, and I want to acknowledge how difficult this is for them, too.
2. What can you say or do that will successfully reflect those values? “I will agree to carry on with the project, because I don’t want to leave the client in the lurch. But I won’t agree to a 30% cut in my rate. Because the firm mismanaged the contracting process, they should absorb the costs of the mismanagement. That said, I will decrease my fees by 10% as a gesture of good will and commitment to this partnership.
The result? The firm agreed to Gwen’s terms. More than that, Gwen’s conduct in that situation earned her the reputation as the ‘most ethical and principled’ of all the firm’s subcontractors. Her influence and political capital remained very strong for the life of that working relationship.
For Gwen, the most difficult aspect was what to do with her anger. If she stuffed it, she would have dishonored herself. If she shared it uncensored in the name of authenticity, she would likely have ended the relationship in a firestorm of blame and resentment. She stayed true to herself by using her anger to unearth her values and then to act in a way that reflected them. Gwen said that this had been the key to what she considered a very effective and authentic negotiation.
Could values-based authenticity work for you? Take the situation you identified at the top of this article, and see what happens when you look at it through the lens of the two questions. Does it show you something new about yourself, the situation, or how you might respond? Let us know!
Leslie Williams is President of LeaderShift Consulting and creator of Leading With Grit And Grace: Smart Power for Women Leaders.