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Henley Leadership Group Blog

How To Keep It Real At Work


Previously published on Forbes.com.

A senior leader at Microsoft recently shared that, when she first started her career 30 years ago, she didn’t tell her co-workers she was pregnant at the time. It would have been “career-limiting,” she said. And that was just one of the many things she didn’t talk about with her co-workers. “Thank God it’s cool to be authentic at work now,” she offered.

Even so, many leaders and aspiring leaders have been led to believe that if you want to succeed, you have to be political. Being political is the opposite of being authentic. It’s about manipulating situations and, at times, people and managing information to your own advantage. It’s often called “playing the game.” The problem is, acting politically creates guardedness. And when you act politically instead of authentically, you lose the loyalty, commitment, creativity and personal investment of those around you.

Unfortunately, hiding the truth, especially when it may be ugly, is a habit that is deeply ingrained in organizational life — and life in general. Protecting ourselves is learned early. As children, we are told by well-meaning adults not show emotions and to suck it up. Don’t be a cry-baby. Never let them see you sweat.

 But here’s the catch. As a leader, if you won’t be open and vulnerable, then neither will your employees or colleagues.

Authenticity creates a work culture where people feel more in tune and connected to their work community and loyal to their organization and its purpose, which helps attract and retain talented people to do their best work. Employees experience being themselves. They don’t have to hide or cover up the differences that make them unique. Differences and diversity are welcome.

 In a recent HBR article, author Vanessa Buote writes about a study conducted by Plasticity Labs and Dr. Anne Wilson, a social psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, who was studying the benefits of authenticity at work. An online survey asked employees to respond to statements such as, “My workplace environment encourages all employees to express who they really are,” “When I’m at work, I don’t show the ‘the real me,'” and “I would like my co-workers to show more of their true selves at work.”

As Boute explains, the findings showed that authentic employees had “significantly higher job satisfaction and engagement, greater happiness at work, a stronger sense of community, more inspiration and lower job stress…The more of themselves that people shared with others, the better their workplace experience.”

Considering that highly engaged employees will go the extra mile to strengthen your competitive advantage, being more authentic as a leader is critical. It’s the first step in fostering a culture where employees can be their true selves at work. To get started, here are five ways to be more authentic as a leader at work:

1. Share as much as you can to help your team be prepared for what’s coming next. You’ll get more buy-in by being transparent about why a decision was made, and in a world of Freedom of Information Acts, WikiLeaks and social media, the age of corporate secrets is over anyway. Of course, there are limits to what can be shared in some circumstances. But really look to see if you are limiting communication because you are too busy or too guarded, and consider who needs to know what.

2. Don’t fake listening. The challenge with many managers is that they were trained in “active listening,” which is where you lean in, make eye contact and say “yes” and “uh huh.” But are you really listening? Or is your mind making your to-do list? When my daughter was nine years old, she called this "fake listening." Stop, really listen and share what you’ve heard the other person saying.

3. Surrender your competence. Stop trying to look like you’ve got it all together all the time. Being a leader isn’t about always being polished or perfect.

Because I’m pretty organized, it can sometimes look like I’m “perfect.” But on the inside, I don’t always feel like I have it together at all. As a result, I used to be anxious and fret about all kinds of things. Several years ago, a dear friend challenged me to share with my team more authentically, to talk about the things I was unsure or confused about. I started doing more of this and it was liberating for both me and my team. The dismantling of my “perfection act” gave my team an opening to step up and be proficient in areas where I’m not. What a relief to all of us!

4. Admit mistakes and errors. When you make a mistake, say so. Demonstrate humility. Say, “I’m sorry, I screwed up.” I don't know why this one is such a toughie, but it seems to be. Admitting mistakes will earn you more trust from people, not less.

5. Keep good boundaries. Don’t be careless or overshare. Before you openly share something, think, “WAIT. Why am I talking?” Not everything has to be said, especially at work. Your employees are not your family or your closest friends. Don’t confuse authenticity with blurting things out or having no filter. And above all, don’t use people at work to process your stuff. If you have important issues to talk about and work through, consider hiring a professional.

Think about a leader you’ve respected or the person who had the biggest impact on you personally. Didn’t they reveal who they are a bit more? And didn’t they make it seem possible to be like them? Now’s your chance.