Do you feel like you can be yourself at work? Considering that over the course of our lifetime, the average person spends 84,365 hours working, it’s an important question to ponder. If you’re unable to show up as your authentic self, that’s 9.6 years you spend pretending to be someone you’re not. Not only is that exhausting, but it also impacts work performance as so much energy is funneled into keeping up appearances.
Authenticity is a concept that can be tricky to define as, by its very nature, it’s expressed differently by different people. The psychologist Kennon Sheldon describes it as “behaviour that we have freely chosen and which allows us to express who we are”. Being authentic allows us to tap into and act in accordance to our individual strengths and values.
According to psychologist Carl Rogers, we’re all inherently motivated as humans to move towards our true selves and that doing so represents a basic need. Various studies have linked authenticity to various positive improvements in life: satisfaction, autonomy, positive relations with others, personal growth, self-acceptance and self-esteem; and reductions in stress and anxiety. In a work setting specifically, studies have shown authenticity to be linked to wellbeing and higher levels of performance. Conversely, being driven towards inauthenticity drains people’s energies and depletes their personal resources.
Understanding the power of authenticity in a work setting is particularly important for leaders. Partly due to the environment they’re responsible for setting for others (according to one study quoted in Harvard Business Review, 75% of people said they want their co-workers to show up more authentically); and partly due to the fact that authenticity is a powerful leadership trait in itself. Leaders acting authentically, showing self-awareness about their strengths and weaknesses, exhibiting vulnerability when admitting their mistakes and being humble about the limits of their knowledge and experience, creates a culture where others feel inspired and empowered to do the same.
Self-awareness is core when it comes to developing leadership authenticity. If a leader is confident in who they really are, their values and purpose, then consistently demonstrate authenticity in their actions, it shines through to others, who then trust in them more. The more self-aware leaders are, the more they know and can manage themselves, the more they can know and manage others. Self-awareness leads to stronger ‘other-awareness’ and therefore stronger relationships.
So how can we encourage authenticity in our leaders, and create a positive ripple effect that flows through the rest of the organisation, making it a place where people feel empowered and safe to be their true selves? Here are some tips…
- Focus on strengths: Encouraging a strengths-based approach to work and performance helps people to be more comfortable being themselves as it creates open dialogue, clarity and understanding about different colleagues’ authentic strengths.
- Build the development of self-awareness into leadership development activity, encouraging leaders to reflect and share their personal life experiences openly through dialogue with others.
- Reframe vulnerability: Too often vulnerability is seen as out of place in the working world, but actually, we should find strength in vulnerability. Leaders demonstrating vulnerability creates connections with others, demonstrating that no-one is expected to be perfect and encouraging people to bring their true selves to work.
- Devote space to helping colleagues identify and drill into their personal sense of meaning and purpose. What drives their authentic selves?
- Encourage people to express themselves by focusing on creating a culture of psychological safety, where people are also free to fail safely.
In the words of professor and author Brené Brown: “What we know matters but who we are matters more.” Creating human-centred work environments and cultures which encourage people to show up and interact as themselves use the power of who we are to drive performance.