It’s Time to Redefine Authenticity

lesliewilliamsContributed 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.

Values-Based Authenticity

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.

0 Response

  1. Avatar

    Leslie, this is a compelling premise in your article. The challenges of authenticity as you described are quite real for many women. Do we speak up about our needs/goals, or do we keep silent?

    Managing our emotions during the disclosure can be difficult, but it shouldn’t stop us from finding ways to communicate when our expectations aren’t being met. Assertive communication coaching (like what you mentioned above) often can help women find their true voice, and to position their message in a way that it won’t lead to “career suicide.”

    Best, Colette

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    Hi Leslie –

    I love your post and the distinction it makes about authenticity (being true to your values vs. being true to your emotions). I will use this distinction with a client who is struggling on a decision they are making.

    Keep the wise advice coming!

    Henna Inam
    CEO Coach

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    Donna Hamilton

    I really like this article. In addition to being about authenticity, it’s also about finding creative solutions. Instead of Gwen making an “either/or” out of the situation, she decided to make the decision based on her own terms. this can be a weak spot for many women.

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    Great piece, Leslie. Your writing style is so fast paced and readable. I will take a lesson from that myself!

    You make a strong proposition that really does solve the problem of organizational politics. To remain silent diminishes us, to lash out diminishes everyone. Either way, damage is done. I love your two questions for Gwen and the way she used them.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom!


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    Great piece. A quote I love about this is from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” To me, being authentic is speaking up and speaking out with respect and with a strategic goal … why do I want to say this and what do I hope that the other person might think or do as a result?

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    Marie-Eve Marchand

    A very thoughtful article that i will use with my coaching clients if you permit.
    You present here a fresh way to think about authentcity . The example you give llustrates well the benefits of interacting from a deeper perspective than our immediate emotions. Being authentic in a compassionate way for all ( including ourselves ) requires that we develop our capacity to witness what is going on . Thus, we are not trapped in the situation and no longer confuse spontaneity with authenticity.

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    Thanks for sharing this wonderful article; I’ve also Tweeted it as there cannot be too much sharing of such valuable insights and analysis for women in the workplace and anywhere we strive to maintain our self, our honor and dignity.

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    Thanks for this great article Leslie – recently as I’ve reflected on how to call myself or others to authentic account is to say – keep your eye on the prize… what do you really want here … beyond the emotions of anger, hurt or desire for revenge … what’s the uplifting outcome you really want. This seems to bring focus.

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    Thanks to everyone for these wonderful comments. Each person had added something really valuable to what’s become a collective exploration of authenticity. Thank you to The Glass Hammer for providing a forum for this conversation.

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    Leslie, You have shown us a powerful way to negotiate between two levels of reality – the one on the surface and the one at the center. This is a very practical gift. I’ll be using it soon! Betsy

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    Great insight Leslie, enjoyed yr thought piece and we have so much yet to learn about how we integrate authenticity into the business world. Lots & lots. I thought you might enjoy the exceptionally apt definition of authenticity on Dr Brenee Brown’s site and her material (including a TEDx talk in Houston) on this very topic.