Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of comedy specials on Netflix. Aiming to add a little levity to my evenings after work. (In case anyone is curious, some of my favorites are Hasan Minhaj, Jim Jefferies, Jo Koy and Brian Simpson.)
One of the hallmarks of effective comedy is the comedian’s ability to say things that everyone is thinking of but may be afraid to voice aloud. And doing that with a unique twist in an authentic, vulnerable voice.
Today many companies (especially startups) encourage people to bring their ‘whole’ and ‘authentic’ self to work.
A client (who is a friend of mine) recently told me that both he and I could come across as intimidating, too direct, and not empathetic enough. Without either of us actually intending it or being aware of our impact. He specifically mentioned how our propensity to curse openly and frequently in work conversations might be off-putting to many people.
He was spot on. What a great reminder.
We all need periodic reminders of things we already ‘know’ but forget to practice.
I got to thinking. What is meant by authenticity at work? What is permissible behavior?
Much like with the concept of ‘freedom of speech’, it’s both easy and wrong to assume that authenticity means anything is allowed and that there should be no repercussions. The reality is something more nuanced.
Authenticity permits the expression and sharing (in appropriate contexts) of the range of emotions including grief, sadness, fear, and frustration. From the place of the “I” statement. In a respectable tone. Without being negative too frequently or about the same few topics all the time. And, we need to practice reciprocity (which is hard for some including me) — which involves holding space for others when they need it.
Authenticity has to be accompanied by reading the room. Understanding the audience and the situation. In larger groups, with more varied groups (e.g. where there are differences in levels, cultural norms etc.), and in more formal settings, authenticity can be riskier and less acceptable.
Differences in power dynamics in a work situation lead to different flavors of authenticity being more acceptable. As the more powerful person (interacting with direct reports or junior colleagues) admitting to mistakes and past failures is fine. But venting is not a good idea.
Venting is allowed with peers (especially outside the office environment). And in 1:1s with the boss, once you request a time-limited session to speak freely.
Creating an authentic workplace requires those with more power to make it safe for those with less to share more freely without fear of blowback. But as with everything, there are limits to authenticity and bringing your whole self to work.
Thus it’s important to have informal communities of ‘work’ peers, friends, coaches, and the like with whom one can be fully authentic. Yet another reason why I am glad to have you all as members in the Journey CxO Community.