What Does It Mean To ‘Be Real’ In The Workplace?

Organisations love the idea of “keeping it real”. It’s all the rage these days. Let the workers speak their minds. Let them be authentic, be themselves, be honest and dress how they like. Because it’s good for business. But do they really mean it? Is it even worth being authentic in the workplace? Let’s take a closer look.

Box head at work image from Shutterstock

We’re obsessed as a society in letting go of our inhibitions and mental restraints and being “real”. We reject the fakery of others and strive to be authentic. But have we placed too much emphasis on being true to oneself, especially when it comes to the workplace?

Adam Grant is an author who wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about how true authenticity is bollocks and that what it’s really about is being vulnerable, sincere and yet to not speak your mind fully. He lamented that employers don’t value real authenticity and that we should let ourselves go and revealed that those who adapt to situations and avoid being themselves are the ones that will be likely to advance in their careers. These inauthentic people can lie their way to the top; fake it until they make it.

Grant added:

“If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but they are better left unspoken.”

But a researcher from the University of Houston Brené Brown, who Grand quoted in his op-ed, argued that authenticity actually requires “almost constant vigilance and awareness about the connections between our thoughts, emotions and behaviours”:

“It also means staying mindful about our intentions. Real authenticity actually requires major self-monitoring and isn’t, as Grant proposes, the lack of self-monitoring. In fact, setting boundaries is, by definition, self-monitoring — it’s thinking about what you’re sharing, why you’re sharing it, and with whom you should be sharing it.”

To an extent, Brown does believe there are problems in organisations that stifle people’s desires to be authentic.

“I believe that buried under Grant’s faulty theorising is a profoundly important question:

If we really want more authenticity and vulnerability, and we know that it leads to more creativity and innovation, then why do we continue to create organisation and family cultures that punish people for showing up as their whole selves? And, does a call for less authenticity move us away from our goals while propping up dehumanising cultures?

Jeff Bezoz and Steve Jobs. Both of them founded overwhelmingly successful organisations and both of them were not known to mince their words. You can infer that their success comes from the fact that they were uninhibited in speaking their minds. Both are, in their own ways, also perceived to be assholes.

It’s a two-way street: authenticity in the workplace can have tremendously positive impacts in the workplace, helping to foster creativity and an atmosphere for open discussion. But the drawback is you will be judged.

Harvard Business Review looked at the concept of authentic workplaces that give workers the ability for self-expression, individuality and diverse experiences:

“These are all attributes found in what we call authentic workplaces, where people’s differences are valued and leveraged — something many contemporary organisations claim that they seek, but relatively few actually deliver.”

Indeed I’ve heard many executives pontificate the importance of letting employees be themselves, but when it comes down to it, they want authenticity with caveats. Do you ever hold back on what you want to say at work? Do you feel like your organisations lets you be your true self? Let us know in the comments.

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