Authenticity is seldom thought of as a major driver of organisational performance, a source of innovation or productivity. In fact, we may not think of authenticity at all. But we’d like to suggest that over the coming years authenticity will be understood as a key variable that separates successful from failing organisations, happy from disengaged workforces, and adaptive from inflexible organisations. And furthermore, we believe that authenticity should be a priority for the work of HR.
No whistling on the job
To understand the importance of authenticity, and the struggle to attain it, we need to look at the evolution of work. Our industrialised past has created the conditions for what might be thought of as a ‘schism’ between our private selves and our work identities. In the pursuit of greater productivity and efficiency, years of industrialisation have seen a movement towards standardisation in the workplace.
Efforts have been made to minimise variations in processes and behaviour, and necessarily to remove individuality. In fact in some workplaces during the era of industrialisation it was deemed a disciplinary offence to be found whistling on the job!
And so as we enter the workplace we find ourselves making changes to our language, demeanor, behaviour, appearance and even our values, so as to accord with a particular set of organisational norms. The processes of industrialization have left us with a workplace culture that serves to divide the self in two, and this schism creates tensions that can have a number of effects.
For example, it can impact upon our wellbeing and cause serious anxieties when our deeply held values are in conflict with those of our workplace. It can cause a form of emotional dissonance and hinder engagement in the workplace. On top of this, our hyper-connected lives see more frequent incursions made by work into our private domains and we find ourselves switching rapidly between our work and private personas in order to accommodate the culture clash. At an organisational level we see the system really start to creak as our industrial norms meet a new world characterized by rapid change and complexity.
Put simply, we have the wrong tools for the job.
The Benefits of authenticity
So, where does authenticity come in? Well, employees in authentic organisations are able to approach their work in ways that express their individuality and they feel more personally invested and accountable as a result. They experiment to see what works best, building flexible and innovative organisations. And they examine why they do what they do and challenge assumptions. This allows people to really get behind the boundaries that are reasonable and necessary, and creatively challenge those that have been formed by habit or tradition. Authentic organisations generate trust and loyalty amongst stakeholders and clients. And authentic organisations inspire productivity and resilience as workers increasingly stand behind, protect and take pride in where they work. A useful way to look at the topic of authenticity is to consider your answers to these three questions, and if you find yourself answering yes to any, or all, of these questions then this may give you some clues about where to start:
- How much more effective would you, and the organisation, be if you were afforded greater freedom to operate in your role?
- How much more effective would you, and the organisation, be if you were afforded greater freedom to speak – to say the things that need to be said and discuss the things that really matter?
- How much more effective would you, and the organisation, be if you were afforded greater freedom to ‘actualise’ – to learn, experiment, grow and find meaning and engagement in your work?
A role for HR
So how might HR play its role in the pursuit of authenticity? The good news is that HR can make a tangible and powerful impact in this area and opportunities lie at every stage in the career journey of employees. Here are 6 key suggestions:
- Values eat skills for breakfast – when it comes to recruitment, nowhere near enough attention is given to the fit between personal and organisational values. To be authentic, and for employees to truly get behind the organisation, this fit has to be established from the very beginning. When it comes to raising levels of employee engagement, or even expensive dismissal processes, you might find yourself paying for this oversight later.
- Help managers to unlearn the old management models – We are familiar with the old adage that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but the truth is it’s harder still to get them to unlearn the old tricks. We need managers to rethink their contribution to the workplace and reappraise the value of the command, coordinate and control mantra that they’ve most likely been brought up on
- Put away the cookie cutter – resist the temptation to standardise behaviours, to restrict the freedoms of employees and to create workforce duplicates. Individuality and diversity is utterly essential for individual and workplace success and our processes e.g. recruitment, performance appraisal etc. should reflect this
- Don’t promote game players – Every time an inauthentic, ‘game-playing’, employee is promoted, a little bit of every else dies inside. Don’t undo the good work of making the organisation authentic, real and genuine by rewarding people that embody the opposite.
- If you build it they will come – Offer diverse workspaces that can cater for introverts, extraverts, groups and those who need quiet time, and allow people to choose what works best for them. And create a multiplicity of forums, informal and formal, for different kinds of dialogue and signal that even the difficult issues will be heard.
- Authenticity is an anagram of employee engagement – its not really, but if you want to know what really gets people to lean in, buy in, and get involved, it's the opportunity to do their work in their own way, to learn and grow within an organisation they believe in.