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  • Kirsi Aalto

The Quest for Authenticity at Work – Will We Thrive or Derail?

Would it be safe to say that in order to express 'optimal' authenticity at work, we need to be in an environment that not only enables us to genuinely express ourselves, but also promotes collaborative learning and openness to challenge each other? If so, then does psychological safety allow employees to challenge the status quo of interpersonal behaviours and express more of their authentic selves?

Authenticity at work | Psychological Safety

Undeniably, the global pandemic has blurred the lines between our identities at work and at home and, understandably, we might at times struggle with the switch. Especially if the switch consists of changing from the breakfast end of your dinner table to your designated workstation. Notably, there has also been an increased level of discussion about the need for bringing our authentic selves to work, particularly due to the developments of promoting diversity, inclusion, and belonging in organisations. We are encouraged to be transparent, stop hiding what makes us unique, and to stop trying to blend in.


BRING YOUR BEST SELF TO WORK


Somewhat paradoxically, one could argue that the unwritten rule still remains – we are to polish ourselves and to bring our best, flawless selves to work. We let our colleagues, and of course our bosses, only see us at our professional best and blend in to the organisational norms. Indeed, this can be considered logical as when we are at work we are working towards a common, organisational goal, rather than towards our own, personal objectives. So, is being ourselves at work whilst being our best selves even possible? Or are the expressions of our fundamental personality attributes in fact us at our most creative, most productive, most comfortable? In other words, should we just go with the flow, act on our impulses, as this is who we are?


Due to the ambiguity of the term authentic, authenticity at work seems too often to remain a type of a corporate myth. What do we actually mean by being authentic?


DIFFERENCES IN BEING AUTHENTIC


Due to the ambiguity of the term authentic, authenticity at work seems too often to remain a type of a corporate myth. What do we actually mean by being authentic? One of the definitions in the Oxford English dictionary describes authenticity as the “quality of truthful correspondence between inner feelings and their outward expression.” In the corporate world, Bill George, who has conducted significant research in authentic leadership, defines authenticity as “being genuine, real, and true to who you are.” and that “to become authentic, each of us has to develop our own leadership style, consistent with our personality and character.” One might therefore ask how aware are we of not only our inner feelings and drivers, but also how we express ourselves?


One might therefore ask how aware are we of not only our inner feelings and drivers, but also how we express ourselves?

In my opinion, although there is no firm consensus of the definition of the term itself, authenticity should not necessarily be about the need to share your whole self with your organisation. This transparency, or forthrightness, is in fact found to be a personality trait, meaning that there is significant variance amongst people when it comes to disclosing personal information and themselves to others. Some people naturally tend to keep their cards close to their chest, where others enjoy sharing. If authenticity would then mean having to be more transparent than what is typical and natural to you, would this not again stop some of us from being authentic?


SAVE ENERGY – BE YOURSELF?


One can also approach authenticity from a neurological framework. By not having to waste excessive levels of energy and brain power to think or behave differently to our typical, authentic selves, we can not only increase our energy levels, but also decrease our level of stress. Therefore, you may feel engaged and energised at work when you get to do something that is meaningful and aligned with your values, but in order to feel truly authentic, it can also be about how you get to express your personality traits and characteristics to contribute to success. Although the immediate rewards may be on an individual level, the ripple effects can have an impact in the entire organisation.


You may feel engaged and energised at work when you get to do something that is meaningful and aligned with your values, but in order to feel truly authentic, it can also be about how you get to express your personality traits and characteristics to contribute to success.

It can be considered that the same way as our brains use heuristics and tap into our intuition to weed out excessive information and to preserve our energy, we are likely to be more effortless and unconscious in our thinking when we are expressing our authentic selves. In other words, our rational brains are likely to use a lot of energy to maintain desired professional appearance and behavioural standards. If we can stop consciously maintaining a particular image, one could argue that this also releases our cognitive capacity to reach a state of personal flow with who we are and what we do. If managed appropriately, I believe there could be significant benefits and potential in this.


However, we have to be mindful not to fool ourselves into thinking that what might feel good is the only way to be our best authentic selves. Authenticity does not need to mean impulsivity or the lack of managing ourselves and our strengths.


THE RISK OF DERAILING


Robert Hogan’s research on the dark side of personality suggests that when it comes to situations where we are not managing our reputation – the way others see us – we are likely to derail in our interpersonal behaviours, resulting in adverse impacts on our performance. This can also result when we are observing and utilising our personality strengths with overconfidence and a tunnel vision, thus lacking flexibility and humility in how to manage our behaviour.


We are observing and utilising our personality strengths with overconfidence and a tunnel vision, thus lacking flexibility and humility in how to manage our behaviour.

This is where I believe the research on the construct of psychological safety brings another interesting context. Psychological safety can be defined as a shared climate where each member is able to show and apply one’s self without fear of negative consequences, such as being ridiculed or punished. A lot of the research, particularly that of Amy Edmondson and Google’s Project Aristotle, stems from exploring creativity, innovation, and problem solving in teams. The general findings are that team members in the most creative teams feel comfortable to speak up and voice their ideas without the fear or social stigma of being embarrassed or ridiculed. In other words, a climate of psychological safety should enable us to safely and freely express ourselves. Therefore, it would indicate that it can also make us at ease when it comes to manifesting our more extreme and distinctive personality traits with more confidence. The threat is that this can result in rigidity and derailment in terms of our typical behaviours and habits. On the other hand, as a psychologically safe climate encourages learning and challenging the status quo, it should also enable reciprocal learning about how to best express our authentic, yet optimal selves, resulting in more efficient and productive individuals, teams, and organisations.


SAFE TO CHALLENGE AND LEARN


Psychological safety does not imply feeling safe the way we might feel when being within our comfort zone. It is in fact quite the opposite. Comfort zone suggests stability and status quo, where an environment of psychological safety promotes learning, contribution, as well as challenging the way things are. Therefore, one could argue that if psychological safety is essential for a team to grow and innovate, certainly this can also be the case for the individuals. Moreover, would it be safe to say that in order to express 'optimal' authenticity at work, we need to be in an environment that not only enables us to genuinely express ourselves, but promotes collaborative learning and, crucially, challenges our behaviours and the way we see ourselves? This way we can be closer to authenticity, but authenticity with boundaries and room for personal development.


BUILDING OUR OPTIMAL SELF


To summarise, when it comes to our individual, unique personalities, I believe that building a psychologically safe environment will allow one to spend less energy on putting their professional guards up and avoiding standing out in any kind of negative way. How much of this energy will be wasted on maintaining our image, our reputation, when we could instead be manifesting our unique personality characteristics and perspectives? If we aren’t afraid of social judgement in a psychologically safe environment, will that allow us to not only think more freely and creatively, further contributing to organisational success, but also to be more comfortable to acknowledge our development areas? And yes, this includes making mistakes and admitting our flaws. Furthermore, as the research on personality derailers indicates that even our strengths can sometimes be overused, leading into negative consequences, are we more prone to overlook this when we are too busy keeping up appearances?


As even our strengths can sometimes be overused, leading into negative consequences, are we more prone to overlook this when we are too busy keeping up appearances?

Very few accomplishments and progression come about without any effort. Same should apply to expressing our personalities and interpersonal skills at work. Some might consider being our authentic selves requires no effort, a more go with the flow approach. In my view, by understanding ourselves and our characteristics we can get more clarity and insight into how these characteristics manifest in real life, how it comes across from our own perspective, but also how it comes across to others? You can then manage yourself better so that you can use the unique aspects of your personality, ability, and creativity in an environment where you not only feel psychologically safe, but also where your peers and managers are comfortable sharing the combination of different personalities, perspectives, motivations and thinking styles each of them possess.


A PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETYNET


You and your personality will never be able to just exist in a vacuum. So, whether in a professional or social environment, a climate of psychological safety can enable you to be yourself and showcase your strengths, whilst having a safety net to catch you when these strengths are overused counterproductively and blind spots are neglected.