The importance of authenticity in the workplace
Dale Carnegie on steroids
In the 1970s and 1980s, authenticity and self-development in the workplace were considered to be important by many middle and senior managers in the Western world. Perhaps too important: organizations were sometimes seen as narcissistic vehicles for self-development, instead of entities that should serve the interests of their shareholders and/or other stakeholders.
This orientation changed dramatically in the first half of the 1990s. Two popular business books that were published during that time perfectly illustrate this change. The first one was ‘Valuation’ (1990), a book written by Copeland, Koller and Murrin (three McKinsey consultants), the second one ‘Emotional intelligence’ by David Goleman (1995).
The key notion in ‘Valuation’ was that the prime purpose of organizations was to deliver value for their investors; a completely different orientation than the personal development of the members of the organization.
David Goleman’s bestseller stressed the importance of emotional intelligence, EQ, as opposed to IQ, in career development. Since the publication of his book, a steady stream of books, articles and posts (for instance in the daily HBR alerts) is being published on how to please the different stakeholders (mainly bosses and co-workers) that are important for one’s career. Many of these publications feel like ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie (1936) on steroids.
Nowadays, many see conformity no longer as a necessary accommodation to ‘fit-in’ in the workplace, or as something ‘optional’ in addition to actual performance, to further one’s career ambitions. Instead, for a number of people it has become one of the most important, or even the only, ‘Critical Success Factor’ to determine one’s success in the workplace (‘behavior = performance’).
Inclusion is not optional
Although it is not always easy, many people in the workplace achieve a satisfactory balance between their need for individual development and expression on the one hand, and the social conformity required to cooperate successfully with others, on the other hand. If, however, the degree in which they experience the need to suppress their authentic behaviors becomes extreme, potentially dangerous situations can present themselves for the individuals, their families, co-workers and the organizations they serve.
First of all, people who feel forced to deploy extremely adaptive behavior can suffer from mental and physical issues (ranging from the inability to reach their full potential, to depression and even cardiovascular issues). Furthermore, their families sometimes suffer as well (‘spillover effect’).
One of the things philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was interested in, was the function of pain and suffering for us as human beings. In this context, he once made the famous statement ‘What does not kill you makes you stronger’. Although this statement is often abused, psychologists agree that adversities create resilience and enable individuals to deal better with traumas. This also implies that individuals who always deny themselves the opportunity to act in an authentic manner in order to avoid going against the tide, rob themselves from the opportunity to become stronger. Instead, they become weaker.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung sees collisions between the individual and his or her external environment as positive. If not too vehement, collisions as a result of making choices and taking a position lead to stronger problem-solving abilities and personal growth. On the other hand, individuals who are afraid to engage in these collisions and try to avoid them at all costs can develop a neurosis.
Embracing the shadow
In other cases, people who cannot deal with the tension between their need for individual expression and social conformity in a healthy manner, may (sometimes consciously) cynically throw away their own moral compass. Instead, they make a Faustian bargain and embrace those (opportunistic) behaviors they think are necessary to further their careers and/or ensure their corporate survival. According to Jung, they embrace their shadow. Often these people develop into corporate versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Symptoms of people displaying this behavior include, amongst others:
- Entertaining ‘the truth’ only as an interesting point of view instead of as a moral checkpoint
- Publicly stating convictions they do not share, and never taking a position based on their principles, if they think this can harm their career
- Re-creating or erasing memories about their unethical behavior in the workplace
- Implementing decisions they know are unfair to their co-workers and/or harmful to their organization, without raising their concerns about this.
Worst case, they will not even raise their voice when they become aware of unethical, unsafe, non-compliant or illegal activities in their organization. On the contrary, they may even be instrumental in facilitating them.
Paradoxically, this brings them into the same position as their narcissistic colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s. They perceive the organizations they are working for only as vehicles for their personal gain, and do not feel accountable to shareholders, stakeholders or society at large. No wonder that most organizations are battling with ever-increasing compliance costs to manage this type of behavior.
A new balance
Does this mean we need to go back to the narcissistic orientation on the workplace that was en-vogue in 1970s and 1980s? No, most people will agree with the fact that organizations primarily exist to serve the objectives of their owners. Furthermore, most people realize that a certain degree of adaptation is necessary in order to cooperate effectively with others and that having the drive to make a career is not a bad thing in itself.
However, what is needed is a healthy balance between authentic and adaptive behavior. This is especially true for senior leaders who have a big impact on the performance of their organization. Many senior leaders go through their work life as jellyfish, moved only by the current. They are only able to measure their success in terms of the number of times they survived management changes, reorganizations, and reshuffles in the aftermath of M&A’s. They have forgotten, or have become too cynical, to measure their success in terms of their contribution to, or ‘the difference’ they make for, their organizations and society at large.
How authentic can you be?
It might be interesting for you to reflect on the degree in which you can sing the following lines from the song ‘I did it my way’, immortalized by Frank Sinatra, when you contemplate about your behavior in the workplace,
‘For what is man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels’
It might be helpful to ask yourself to what degree you feel you can be authentic in the workplace, how this affects you in your private life, how this impacts the performance of the organization you are working for, and, finally, on a scale of 1-10, reflect on how satisfied you are with this situation. If you give a score is 5 or less, you might want to reflect on the what and how of the changes you, and/or your workplace, would need to make in order to enable you to act more authentically. An honest discussion with your line manager, co-workers and possibly HR might be a good first step. Alternatively, you could look outside your organization for a ‘more accommodating platform’ to deploy your talents.