Authenticity and Jerks at Work

KarenBusiness success, Communication Skills, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Uncategorized

I usually only post when I’ve got something particular to say (much to the chagrin of the lovely guy who does my SEO and is vainly attempting to get more traffic to this website, but I digress…). A while back I posted something on LinkedIn about bad behaviour in the workplace, and it got quite a bit of notice and discussion. Well, folks, I’m sorry to say that bad behaviour in the workplace seems to be continuing unabated. So I thought I’d re-post that piece here with some new resources in hopes that it offers some helpful thoughts on the topic.

Bad behaviour in the workplace occurs as many things – raised voices, exclusion, punishment (explicit or implicit) for not burning the midnight oil, back-stabbing, gossip – the list goes on. When (if) confronted, the perpetrators of the bad behaviour often default to “I’m just being myself.” Or “I’m just doing what needs to be done.”

Which, by some standards, equates to “I’m being authentic.”

The week I posted my original piece, Adam Grant (of the terrific book, Give and Take) posted an op-ed in the New York Times entitled Unless you’re Oprah, “Be Yourself” is Terrible Advice. He referenced Brene Brown, saying that she defined “authenticity” as “…the choice to let our true selves be seen,” which he interpreted as the choice to say what you’re thinking at all times, regardless of audience or situation. And he says it’s a bad idea.

Well, of course it is, if that’s your definition.

Following swiftly on the heels of that post was a rebuttal from Brene Brown, who took understandable issue with the fact that Grant reduced her body of work to a 9-word definition of “authenticity.” For any of you who might be unfamiliar with Brene Brown (is that possible?), of TED talk fame, she is an academic researcher into shame, vulnerability, courage – and authenticity. In her words – and based on her data – “…the core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.”

Setting boundaries. Having courage. Being vulnerable. Sounds different than what Grant was talking about, doesn’t it?

The whole thing was nicely synthesized by Michael Port in his podcast shortly thereafter. In my view Michael summarizes the essence of authenticity best when he writes, “…we win when we present the best parts of ourselves, but not every part of ourselves.”

So it’s about choosing which part of yourself you show, and when, and to whom, for what purpose. That makes sense to me.

There is a lot more to each side of this, and I encourage you to read both perspectives and listen to Michael’s podcast. But here’s my take, in a nutshell.

We are complex beings, and we all play multiple roles. And we bring different aspects of ourselves to each of those roles (which we also vary by situation in each role, just to make things even more complex).

Workplaces are complex systems, full of complex and varied people. If we don’t design the way we show up at work at least a little, we’re reducing our chances of making connections, building relationships, being heard and ultimately getting what we need to do done.

When I wrote about “the jerk at work,” I was referring to the person who doesn’t make any effort to really connect. The person who isn’t interested in anyone’s agenda other than their own. Who is unfiltered and doesn’t care whether he or she offends. I don’t think that’s being authentic. I think it’s being a jerk, and I don’t think that kind of behaviour takes any courage whatsoever. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not to mention that it can’t possibly get or sustain real results.

And as for “speaking your truth” – another bit of misunderstood advice that floats around these days – well, sure. In the right place, at the right time, to the right audience. Hold back when it’s not the right time. Again, design for success.

At the crux of all of this, in my view, is the fact that we seem to have created a spectrum where you’re either all “authentic” all the time, regardless of consequences, or obsequious, smarmy and lacking integrity. Neither is the way to be – and, hopefully, neither is the path to long term success. But being conscious about how you show up and what you say and when you say it takes energy and effort. One of our biggest issues in workplaces these days is that fewer and fewer people have, or choose to invest, that energy and effort. Called “self-regulation,” the investment of energy and effort to manage our impulses is one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence and a focus of study in the field of Positive Psychology. Building self-regulation is where we need effort and attention.

And then we need skills. Skills to choose our behaviour, as shown by body language expert Mark Bowden. The ability to build trust, engage in and resolve conflict constructively, and understand our emotions at work – check Liane Davey’s work in that realm.

Again, from Brene Brown, “We need braver, more authentic leaders. We need cultures that support the idea that vulnerability is courage and also the birthplace of trust, innovation, learning, risk-taking, and having tough conversations.”

More courage, please. More acceptance of imperfection and vulnerability. More consciousness and intention about how we show up and interact with others. And fewer jerks at work.