Project W: Want To Be More Authentic at Work? Read This First. | Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

[author: Kore Koubourlis]

Kore Koubourlis is Founder and Principal of The Essential Group, a boutique agency that focuses on talent development and leadership coaching. Kore works with professionals looking to uplevel their skills in a host of areas, including executive presence, transforming negative interpersonal dynamics, navigating complexity, and building communication and stakeholder strategies. In this article, Kore shares what it means to be authentic at work and how that changes with different situations and at different points in your career.

In the past decade, the invitation to embrace authenticity in the workplace has intensified. Record numbers of employers are urging workers to “be authentic” and “bring your whole self to work.” As an executive coach, I have a front-row seat on how this plays out for employees, and it’s not always pretty. While the emphasis on authenticity undoubtedly brings tangible benefits, it carries hidden challenges as well, especially for women.

The Benefits of Authenticity: Highlights From the Research

Research from BetterUp, an evidence-based mental health and coaching company, shows there are numerous benefits in embracing authenticity in the workplace, including:

  1. 150% increase in belonging

  2. 140% increase in employee engagement

  3. 90% increase in team innovation

  4. 54% lower turnover

  5. 50% increase in team performance

Beyond the obvious appeal of these figures, a company’s commitment to authenticity can also be a decisive factor in attracting new hires, especially Millennial and Gen Z employees. Despite the benefits, navigating authenticity at work can be a minefield, chock full of what I think of as “authenticity traps.” Let’s explore five of the authenticity traps that the professional women I see in my coaching practice regularly grapple with.

Five Authenticity Traps

  1. If It Doesn’t Feel Natural, Then It Must Not Be Authentic

    The first authenticity trap to get on top of is mistaking the discomfort that accompanies professional growth with inauthenticity. This is particularly common for high performers who experience rapid career advancement. With advancement, the expectations and norms change—and rapidly—as does what the organization needs from us to thrive. But instead of recognizing this and adapting, women often just lean harder into the behaviors that made them successful at lower levels. When challenged to do something different, many women resist, saying that if it feels awkward or hard, then it must not be authentic. Real growth, however, requires us to push beyond our known comfort zones. If we don’t, we can stall out.

  2. An Excuse for Bad Behavior

    Some leaders use the concept of authenticity to justify their actions. They claim, “I have to be true to myself,” or “This is just me being vulnerable and real,” expecting everyone else to accept their bad behavior.

    A client of mine fell into this trap. With morale at an all-time low, the team she led was struggling. A survey revealed that my client’s harsh tone and constant critiques were taking a toll on people and on teamwork. Instead of paying attention to the feedback, however, my client maintained she was just being her true self; she resisted the suggestion that she modify her behavior, arguing that it would be fake to make any changes.

    Unfortunately, what my client’s team saw above all was their boss’s expectation that they “just deal.” This set a damaging precedent that bad but “authentic” behavior would be tolerated, regardless of the impact. The result? My client lost her best employees, while the ones who stayed followed her lead, putting their own bad behaviors on display. That was my client’s wakeup call that something had to give.

  3. Harming the Team

    The third authenticity trap is where individual preferences overshadow collective goals. A client ran into this with one of her employees, who had a habit of venting and sharing personal details with her colleagues in team meetings. She claimed this was how she lived by the company’s stated value to provide a culture where people could “be authentic and come as you are.” What this employee ignored, however, was that her behavior had the effect of shutting everyone else down.

    When individual preference trumps team needs, organizational culture suffers, as does productivity. Balancing personal authenticity with collaborative success is crucial to maintaining a healthy culture where everyone can do their best work.

  4. Confusing You with Your Behaviors

    Your authentic self is composed of personality, traits, and preferences that go beyond surface-level behaviors. Your behaviors, in contrast, are variable and shaped by specific roles and situations. If the invitation to be authentic at work is put into practice without understanding the difference, that can be a problem.

    Each of us leads complex, multifaceted lives, filled with numerous roles we play. Each role has its own context and set of norms, and in each, we show up differently. One woman might be all of the following: a mother, lawyer, mentor, student, soccer player, romantic partner, board member, daughter, and so on. While she maintains a throughline across these roles—that is her personality, traits, and preferences that make up her true self at the core—she will behave differently in each. The fact that she demonstrates different behaviors in different roles does not make her inauthentic. I’d call that practical.

    Decide which of your identities you want to display at work and which you don’t. Only you can decide, just make sure you do!

  5. Don’t Confuse Being Authentic With Saying Something You’ll Regret

    Be careful not to use authenticity as an excuse for recklessness. Being authentic at work is a skill that is built over time. It takes developing discernment and exercising good judgment. And a keen desire to use authenticity responsibly. This is not about being fake, but it is about being purposeful and knowing when to take risks versus biding your time. Your colleagues probably don’t need (or want) to know every single thing about you or every thought you are having.

How to Navigate Authenticity Successfully

Here are the tips my clients use to tailor how they incorporate authenticity into their lives without falling into the authenticity traps:

  1. Embrace the Current Conditions (or Choose to Leave)

    Choose a workplace that is a good fit. This requires that you know yourself and what you stand for.

    • Pay attention to your current role and career stage.
    • Regularly reflect on what has changed over time for you and if any of your behaviors need updating.
    • Notice how your behavior impacts your colleagues. Take responsibility for your interactions and be respectful of others’ preferences.
  2. Check in With Yourself
  3. Use Integrity
  • Share selectively; being authentic does not require you to reveal your entire life story.
  • Find ways to connect without getting too personal until trust and relationship is established.
  • Exercise judgment in what you share to make sure you don’t cause others to be uncomfortable.

Conclusion

Authenticity is a dynamic concept that is evolving alongside societal needs and expectations. Embracing authenticity is a journey, not a destination; success lies in finding the balance between being true to yourself and contributing positively to collective workplace goals.

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