How Organizations Can Balance Authenticity With Propriety

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Boundaries and accountability are key to allowing people to bring their true selves to work.

It has become a common complaint that I hear from executives and HR teams in my consulting practice: inappropriate, sometimes even disturbing, behavior at work in the name of “authenticity.” One employee was rude to a colleague, and when a supervisor stepped in, the employee snapped back, insisting that they were simply being authentic. Another employee announced, “I don’t trust White people,” and explained that that was her “authentic self.”

When I recently hosted a conversation about this idea on the social audio platform Clubhouse, every manager in the virtual room said they were facing this challenge. And at a corporate event, executives told me the last thing they want to do is encourage employees to be even more authentic.

The recent push for authenticity in the workplace can be tricky to navigate. People should feel free to speak up when they see a problem, ask for help when they need it, and share their perspectives at work. After all, self-censorship in which people hold back on important ideas can damage organizations.

Also, being a truly diverse and inclusive organization means welcoming people to be their true selves rather than expecting them to conform to a personality type and stifling their originality. Many minorities already find it difficult to be authentic at work, knowing that some people’s biases (including unconscious ones) can be triggered when we simply act, speak, dress, or do our hair naturally. Encouraging authenticity can be a crucial way to free people from these kinds of worries.

But sometimes authenticity becomes incivility.

When employees are allowed to use authenticity to justify disrespectful or hurtful actions, everyone loses out. Other employees feel miserable and unsafe. The workplace culture sours. Leaders and managers can feel helpless, convinced that if they try to discourage such behaviors, they’ll be accused of denying employees’ authenticity. And often the biggest losers are the people misbehaving. With no one setting them on the right track or modeling acceptable norms, they miss the lesson — and the opportunity for growth.

In my work advising businesses on how to approach this issue, I’ve found that the following steps can make a big difference in creating a culture that values authenticity and respect.

Define ‘Authenticity’ Clearly

Each business needs to be specific about what it means when it encourages employees to be themselves. Make clear that sharing one’s experiences and speaking one’s mind are important as long as they help advance the company and the employee experience. Authentic self-expression must take place within the confines of a corporate culture that calls for respect, civility, listening, and consideration.

According to Michael F. Steger, founder and director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University, “Authenticity is accessing and enacting our true self, but it also is the way we test, refine, and improve our true self as members of cooperative groups.”

Provide Training With Real-Life Scenarios

Training and workshops can help managers learn how to handle complex situations that can pit authenticity against other corporate values.

For example, one client told me about an employee who failed to turn in an assignment on time and, when asked about it, brought up a traumatic experience from their past — one that was unrelated to the project at hand. The manager had no idea what to do, so they did nothing. Training sessions can show managers how to respond in situations like this — how to be empathetic about a person’s experience while remaining firm on enforcing deadlines.

Training can also help employees at all levels learn how to decide whether to share something. In Harvard Business Review, two professors offered a series of questions for people to consider before bringing something up at work, including asking themselves what their goals are in doing so and how much self-reflection they have done.

Make Psychological Safety Everyone’s Responsibility

For years, business leaders have been told that it’s crucial to make sure employees feel psychologically safe to speak their minds. What often gets less attention is that everyone in an organization must be part of ensuring a psychologically safe environment — and toxic behavior can get in the way. Employee A won’t share an idea if they’re afraid employee B will respond disrespectfully. When discussing inappropriate behavior with an employee, emphasize the ways that their behavior, no matter what their intention, could affect their colleagues’ sense of psychological safety.

I’ve found that taking these steps can make a tremendous difference and help guide behavior in the right direction. Still, some employees will push the boundary of what’s acceptable. When that happens, hold them accountable. Managers should keep records of exactly what happened and how they handled it. When employees see that proper action has been taken, they become more confident that the organization is committed to fostering a positive workplace culture — and everyone wins.

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