“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have discussed the topic of authenticity with other business professionals for decades, but these conversations over the last few years have migrated from the importance of simply allowing others to see the “real” us to guarded discussions around the increasing anxiety and fear people have in today’s world regarding being open about what they truly think and nervousness about advocating for their beliefs and convictions. In a few very recent discussions with other business leaders, I received blank stares and obvious discomfort when I advocated for being the same person no matter where we were and transparent about our lives with others. Why is authenticity so uncomfortable?
I suspect the root cause of this occurred for many of us at a young age. The first time we felt pressure to “fit in” with a particular group in school, we began down the path of conformity that only accelerated as we grew older. In college, we may have heard from professors (or parents) that we need to keep our work, faith, beliefs and personal lives separate. We may have feared being judged or criticized in those early jobs for sharing anything personal which only hardens into a compartmentalized mindset as we grow in our careers.
Logic should tell us it is inevitably harmful to suppress our true selves for a sustained period of time, yet people may sometimes feel there is no other option. Do you love being a parent, but feel awkward about discussing your kids and personal life at work? Do you care passionately about a particular cause, but refrain from mentioning it for fear of condemnation? Have you struggled with Covid burnout or some other personal challenge and felt the need to hide it from colleagues for fear of judgment? Have you ever been faced with a difficult situation that conflicts with your principles and values, but remained silent rather than risking criticism? I suspect most of us, myself included, have faced these kinds of situations. I choose to believe that deep down most of us desire to be more consistently authentic, but may not know how to get there.
Obstacles to Authenticity
Let’s address some of the obstacles that may prevent us from being authentic. I am making a basic assumption that you agree with me on some level that authenticity is important and that many of us have a desire to be more open, transparent and genuine. In my experience, here are some of the obstacles that may inhibit our authenticity:
- Lack of self-awareness. Do we even know there’s a problem?
- Fear of people not liking who we truly are. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of being judged. Fear of persecution for our principles and beliefs. Fear of being passed over for a promotion because we don’t fit the corporate mold. Fear of being “canceled” in today’s culture.
- Lack of courage in defending our opinions and convictions.
- Attachment to an income level and lifestyle that requires unhealthy compromise.
- Conforming to society’s march towards political correctness, restrictions on free speech and acceptance of things which are in direct conflict with our values and principles.
- Relaxing our moral standards because it easier to go along with the crowd than take a stand.
- Incorrectly believing that presenting our generic or “fake” selves in the workplace is the only path to success.
- Role models, mentors and candid friends are lacking who can show us the right approach and help us improve in this area.
This list may be as painful to acknowledge as it is for me to write, or you may have a different list. The points raised may be unsettling, but confronting them is necessary if we are to pursue and embrace a more authentic life. How do we overcome these obstacles? One way forward is to open the aperture about how we view the practice of authenticity. It is not enough to simply be authentic, but we also have a responsibility to help it thrive in others as well. Here are nine positive ways we can demonstrate and promote authenticity in daily life:
Treating others with kindness, gratitude, mercy, compassion, fairness and love can all be powerful manifestations of authenticity if they emanate from our core beliefs and reflect how we truly feel about others.
Be respectful and civil. I interact with professionals every day who may fundamentally disagree with me on a number of topics, but I always try to respect their points of view and I ask for that same respect in return. We share our perspectives, experiences and beliefs in a civil discussion, rooted in mutual respect.
Replace angry political arguments with civil discussions about ideas. Let’s promote the lost concept of healthy debates. We need more calm dialogue and less screaming in today’s polarized world.
Practice active listening. Good listening skills are essential for promoting authenticity. This is especially true if we make the choice to listen to conflicting opinions with calmness. We should consider responding with thoughtful questions before offering our own opinions in return. If truly listening with a desire to learn, we also need to keep an open mind and even be willing to change our opinion if warranted.
Diversity of opinion is a good thing. Conflicting views, beliefs and opinions contribute to diversity of thought. We need this diversity of thought or risk a frightening monolithic world-view where everyone thinks the same way.
Transparency invites transparency. Be transparent first. Get personal. If we desire someone to open up to us, we should be open about our lives first. In effect, this gives the other person “permission” to be open about non-work related topics if we take the first step in sharing.
Be curious. Be insatiably curious about others. Learn and remember personal things about others like spouse and kid names, hobbies, interests and birthdays. Open-ended questions like “Where did you grow up?”, “What did you do this weekend?” or “What are you doing for vacation this summer?” can be a great way to begin. Authenticity is greatly enhanced by mutual sharing and sharing thrives in an atmosphere of curiosity.
Business relationships will become stronger and more meaningful when we allow others to see the “real” us. In my experience, the best relationships are built on the foundation of trust and being trusted depends on someone experiencing and knowing the real you.
Read the room. Being consistently authentic does not mean always sharing our sad stories or deeply emotional experiences. It does not mean we should share every aspect of our personal lives or topics inappropriate for an audience or situation. Use good judgment. Read the room. Be smart.
We have to challenge the fear that somehow being real is a bad thing. It may be uncomfortable and create some opposition in the short term from individuals not used to it. However, practicing transparency, engaging in honest and open dialogue, and always placing our principles and ethics before advancing our careers will bring us greater success in every aspect of our lives. I have seen the positive fruits of this in my own life and the lives of countless other business leaders. I would also argue that the most authentic business leaders I know are also the most inspiring and by far the most successful.
I am sharing this from my perspective as a father, husband, person of faith and business owner who is very involved in the community. You may have different perspectives and views on this topic, but I believe anyone can find relevant value in what I am sharing. Maybe we should stop thinking that being ourselves, holding differing views on important subjects or resisting the expectations of the surrounding culture is somehow a bad thing. In the business world, we should all seek the freedom to no longer sacrifice our uniqueness and who we truly are on the altar of political expediency.
After you read this post, please consider if you are being authentic to those around you. Let’s set a good example for others, especially the generations coming after us, by being unafraid to be our true selves. Remember that a lifetime of little compromises at work (and elsewhere) eventually adds up to an overwhelming denial of who we really are. What is required of us is not easy, but necessary if we want to change the growing challenges around the simple practice of being our real selves. Our acts of authenticity in the workplace, exercised with prudence and good judgment, can dramatically improve the quality of business conversations, foster trusting relationships, unleash hidden potential and potentially improve business results.
With confidence and a sense of purpose, let’s all try to be a little more authentic today.
*Stay tuned for the upcoming 7th post in the “Simplify” blog post series: “Facing Veracruz Moments”