Experts are constantly telling us that inclusion and belonging come from authenticity. But what does this actually mean, asks Mike Thackray?
The inclusion goal of ‘authenticity’ is one we’re hearing a lot about at present.
The ability and promise that if we can be our authentic selves at work, then good things will follow.
This Holy Grail is not just sought-after, in some organisations it is actually promised as an employee offering. “Come and work here and we will allow you to be who you really are,” they say. Sounds great.
But what happens when ‘who you are’ doesn’t align perfectly with who you might need to be at work?
The last two years have helped accelerate a power shift from organisations to individual workers.
The advent of homeworking and greater flexibility in how we arrange our working lives, plus the insights that the pandemic has given us into others’ working conditions and personal lives, has increased the expectation that we should be allowed to work when, where and how we want.
Authenticity at work
Increasingly however, people are questioning the long-term validity and likely success of such an approach.
Let’s state at the outset that aspiring to create the organisational conditions under which your people can apply their skills and attributes in a truly authentic manner and have it work for the organisation at the same time is a very worthy goal.
If we have a perfect alignment between who someone is, what they are competent at, and what the organisation needs, then have we “solved” work?
I know from experience that if I acted in an unthinkingly authentic way in my organisation, I would likely be seeking alternative employment within weeks.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of alignment between who I am, what I do and what is needed at my organisation, it’s just that there’s a whole other set of characteristics inherent to me that I would be wise not to demonstrate on a daily basis. I therefore need to act in a constructively authentic way that works for me and my employer.
It’s all about me! Or is it?
If we want our organisations to succeed, we need to be mindful not just of individual needs, but of organisational needs as well. This might sound too obvious to even state – but this message appears to have been watered down recently and, in some cases, even lost.
We have heard several stories recently of leaders grappling with the hybrid working challenge, with managers requesting attendance at what they deemed to be key meetings and being met with push back from team members that such travel “no longer fits in” with their whole life. There is no easy answer to this; it requires a delicate balancing act.
Let’s reiterate. We want to aim for a situation where everything is aligned and people are able to be their authentic selves. This is not about rejecting the principle that we need to be far more mindful of personal circumstances, individual strengths and whole lives if we are to get the best of people. Rather, it is acknowledging that this has its limits if a business is to deliver on its strategy.
If part of my authentic self is being a compulsive flame thrower, what do we do when this clashes with the needs of the paper factory?
We are talking about the shifting power when those things are misaligned. If part of my authentic self is being a compulsive flame thrower, what do we do when this clashes with the needs of the paper factory?
The performance conversation
In this world where employees appear to have greater power and choice in certain (but not all) sectors, how do we constructively manage performance and create expectations that employees need to meet?
Build leaders’ and managers’ ability to have adult conversations: While leaders need to be emotionally intelligent and tuned into individual needs, they also need to be more willing and able to have adult conversations about balancing the needs of the individual, team and organisation as and when the need arises. Note that we have reframed “difficult” conversations; think of them instead as simply an adult-to-adult discussion.
Develop scenarios/use-cases for leaders to practise articulating boundaries: Leaders and managers need to be better at articulating the boundaries between self and organisation. We recommend using stories and principles rather than rules or absolutes. This ambiguity and comfort with tackling situations as they arise is not a natural state for many people, so leaders need frameworks to help them navigate this ambiguity.
Revisit assessment and onboarding processes: Effective performance management is underpinned by getting the recruitment and onboarding right from the start. If we are going to allow people to be their authentic selves, then it’s wise to check up-front that they possess the qualities and characteristics we want to represent and lead our culture. By doing so, we are better able to allow people to be their authentic selves at work, or at least reach a point of constructive authenticity.