We hear a lot about authenticity and authentic leadership in the workplace. Famous authors such as Brené Brown and Adam Grant have debated its merits. We’re told, “Bring your whole self to work,” and “Our diversity makes us stronger,” but what happens when we show up as ourselves? What would that even entail? Authenticity gets lots of positive press, yet the reality is much more complex, particularly for underrepresented and historically marginalized groups. While the benefits of authenticity are myriad, the costs and risks vary widely by individual and circumstance.
What is Authenticity?
Authenticity has multiple meanings. We’re referring to what Merriam-Webster defines as: “True to one’s own personality, spirit or character.” That seems like a generally positive, straightforward trait, but it’s worth clarifying what authenticity is not. Authenticity does not mean being entirely unfiltered or disregarding our impact on others. It does not entail a lack of boundaries or oversharing. It does not necessitate an absence of privacy or a merging of personal and professional self. It’s okay if you are a different person at home than at work – that doesn’t make you inauthentic. Instead, authenticity combines sincerity, alignment with our values, and consistency between our words and actions.
The Many Benefits
While we may recognize at an instinctual level that authenticity is “good,” the benefits manifest differently for the individual and their organization. Maintaining an outward expression that is not true to ourselves takes a toll. Staying “in character” requires more energy, effort and vigilance.
When we show up as our authentic selves, we can instead channel that energy into our professional work and relationships. The pressure to hide parts of ourselves or maintain a secret can lead to hypervigilance, anxiety and shame, impacting our mental and physical health. A 2013 study by Université de Montréal demonstrated this linkage, finding a reduction in cortisol levels and improved biomarkers associated with “coming out” for lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals.
Authenticity is also significantly impactful for the organization. A 2006 study by the University of Nebraska found “employees’ perception of authentic leadership serves as the strongest single predictor of employee job satisfaction, organizational commitment and work happiness.” The strongest single predictor! This striking finding makes sense: When we perceive authenticity in our leaders, we feel greater trust and psychological safety. We know what to expect and where we stand.
The self-improvement genre is flush with publications about authentic leadership, yet most seem geared toward straight white men, with encouragement to be vulnerable and open and to embrace emotions. These practices are theoretically excellent; however, they are not always realistic or applicable to those facing gender, racial or other biases in the workplace.
In her TEDxSeattle talk, “The myth of bringing your full, authentic self to work,” Jodi-Ann Burey explains the dichotomy facing underrepresented and historically marginalized people who are encouraged to “be themselves” at work. In reality, many organizations continue to punish individuals who stray from the narrow definition of professionalism determined by the historically dominant group.
One demonstrative example is discrimination against Black employees and students who choose natural hairstyles. While legislation has been enacted in 20 states to provide legal protections against this type of discrimination, the 2023 study conducted by Dove showed that bias is still prevalent, including one finding that Black women with coiled or textured hair are twice as likely to experience microaggressions in the workplace as Black women with straighter hair.
In the 2019 HBR article, “The Costs of Code-Switching,” the authors demonstrate that code-switching is widely perceived as necessary for advancement despite the tremendous psychological toll. Their research found that white participants viewed Black employees who engaged in code-switching behaviors as more “professional” than those who did not.
The challenges of being more authentic are not just external. We may struggle to release behaviors that have kept us safe, even in an inclusive and psychologically safe environment. Practices such as code-switching, masking or camouflaging can become so ingrained that we no longer recognize them.
In the book, Unmasking Autism, Dr. Devon Price discusses the complex process of noticing and unlearning adaptive behaviors that no longer serve us. This effort takes time and self-reflection, and may require the support of a therapist. Even with self-awareness, our “true self” is multi-faceted and constantly evolving. What felt authentic before may not feel authentic in the future. As our values evolve and crystallize, we may notice tension with our organization’s goals or culture.
So, What Are Our Options?
If you want to explore authenticity but are worried about the impact, the following exercise can help. As you successfully take increasing risks around authenticity, this process will likely become more intuitive and less deliberate.
First, visualize what “being yourself” would look like. What would it feel like if you could show up in a natural way aligned with your sense of self and your beliefs? The future state you’ve imagined illustrates the potential benefits at stake.
Next, inventory your values and goals, even if they seem obvious. Explicitly listing them can lead to profound insights about what is most important. If this is challenging, you can reflect on situations or conflicts that feel disproportionately upsetting. Our pet peeves are often grounded in a hidden underlying value or belief. By understanding what’s most important, you can better decide which changes would be most meaningful and where you’re willing to take greater risk.
After looking inward, it’s time to look outward to understand your risks. What are the unspoken rules in your workplace? Who is allowed to express themselves? When people deviate from expectations, what is the result? What is the realistic worst-case scenario if you are more authentic? Once you’ve assessed the potential impact, you can decide how much risk exposure to accept.
Lastly, find ways to experiment. Slowly introduce elements of yourself that you believe will lead to greater feelings of alignment. These changes could be related to your communication style, your appearance, or how much you share about yourself with colleagues. These experiments will help determine both the internal benefits and the external costs of introducing more authenticity. If you are surprised by the results, you can reiterate the exercise using this newfound knowledge.
Here are two hypothetical scenarios to demonstrate what this might look like:
Scenario 1: Camille is burnt out and exhausted, feeling she must play a character at work, one that is agreeable and accommodating. The authenticity exercise reveals fairness as a core value, yet she feels the work distribution on her team is inequitable. Camille recognizes that her organization discourages conflict and promotes conformance, but decides to experiment with self-advocating. She does this by gradually speaking up more in meetings and beginning to set firm boundaries around work-life balance. Initially, her manager and teammates seem surprised, but with the newfound energy and peace she’s feeling, her performance and her relationships at work begin to improve and a “new normal” is established.
Scenario 2: Alex is experiencing resentment and frustration. She feels pressure to mask her neurodiversity in the workplace and to conform to outdated expectations around femininity and professionalism, particularly in her externally facing role. She realizes that two of her core values are justice and independence. Alex has witnessed microaggressions and ableism when dealing with clients, but decides to take some measured risk by wearing more comfortable clothes and swapping heels for flats. As she does this, she notices that her client evaluation scores begin to slip, potentially impacting her bonus metrics. Alex decides to return to more formal attire in the short term, but begins searching for a new role, one that will allow her to dress comfortably without impacting her financial stability and independence.
The Role of Leaders
People should not feel they must bring a sanitized version of themselves to work, yet we know authenticity is not welcomed and encouraged equally in the workforce. Leaders are responsible for understanding the climate in their organizations and striving to improve it. They should approach this effort with curiosity and openness, recognizing that their perception of company culture may not represent others’ experiences. Organizations can only earn the benefits of diversity once they’ve invested in foundations of equity, inclusion and belonging. The return on that investment can be substantial. When employees at all levels can show up authentically, the organization benefits from greater trust, higher morale, better retention and access to diversity of thought – a win-win for all.
Reprint from OILWOMAN Magazine – July/August 2023
Engineer by trade. Diversity, equity and inclusion professional by choice. With a successful two decade career in the international energy industry, and having been one of the few women in her field, Erica D’Eramo has made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. She is passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. In 2016, D’Eramo founded Two Piers Consulting to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide companies with the tools and strategies to effectively create and grow truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University, and an Executive MBA from University of Texas at Austin. www.twopiersconsulting.com