There’s lots of talk lately about the value of authenticity and bringing our whole self to work. I get it. The idea is that spending less time and energy protecting our true identities will make us freer, happier, and more energized. This openness in turn will enable us to create richer connections with colleagues and make us more engaged and productive. Individuals will feel the relief and freedom of self-expression and organizations will get the benefits of increased employee engagement. A no brainer, right?
Not completely. While feeling happier and more engaged can no doubt make a positive difference, the notion of freedom to express one’s authentic self is built on several erroneous presuppositions: First, the notion that we have a singular self that remains consistent in all contexts is a fallacy. We just don’t have a single true self that is consistent across all contexts. We are systems, and we are influenced by the systems with which we interact. We step into different roles and different parts of ourselves as the context and the people around us change. My authentic self when I am coaching a leader is different from my authentic self giving feedback to an employee or putting up a tent in a rainstorm with a friend on a camping trip. Different situations naturally cue up different parts of our identity, so speaking in terms of a singular self is one of the erroneous presuppositions underlying authenticity.
The second erroneous presupposition has to do with the idea that people should feel totally free in the workplace. Not only is the idea that one should feel totally free to express oneself at work unrealistic, more importantly, it’s often undesirable. If I’m in a lousy mood, then acting authentically means snapping at anyone who speaks to me. That’s not good for anybody, including myself. Or what if I really like one of my direct reports and could see her becoming my friend so I decide to invite her to my home for dinner? I think the complexity and potential mess here is obvious.
Finally, the third problem with the notion of authenticity is that it’s just not culturally neutral. Cultures differ in terms of what authenticity means and how much it is valued. Even the notion of a singular and authentic (i.e., unsocialized) self is a cultural construct. What’s more, there is more risk for some people in expressing one’s self than for others. People of color may fear being ostracized or worse if they express themselves in ways consistent with their cultural background. When men are more open and transparent about their feelings, their authenticity is praised; when women do it, they risk negative judgments about being too emotional or inappropriately disclosing.
In addition, some people will feel freer to be expressive because their personalities match the culture in which they work. It is easier to risk self-expression if you know you will be accepted. But this is not the case when there isn’t a cultural match. If you work in a culture that avoids conflict and you are comfortable with conflict, being authentic can be very risky. If you are gay in a faith-based culture, revealing your authentic self might put your job on the line.
So what’s the alternative?
My feelings should be in the service of the situation, and not the other way around. Sometimes our participants challenge us, wondering if this means being a chameleon or worse yet being ‘political’. On the contrary, contextual authenticity is about adding more colors to your palette and having a broader range of behavioral choices. It’s about understanding that ultimately the workplace is a place for creation, for getting things done with and through other people and it is on us as leaders to serve the context, and not just ourselves.