A Research Paper By Annabella Da Encarnacao, Leadership Coach, GERMANY
Authenticity in Workplaces
My coaching practice revolves around living your authentic self at the workplace as an individual.
Gabriela Krupa is an experienced organization coach, describing herself as focusing on “purposeful self-organization for business and authentic workplaces”. Gabriela has worked for the self-management consulting company Energized and currently supports my own work in its path to self-management.
More and more individuals want to live wholesome at their workplace, however, companies that take the leap of faith in this direction are still few. This interview‘s core perspective is on a company level, what does authenticity mean to them, what is the process of bringing authenticity to the workplace, and of course its challenges and benefits.
Gabi, We Both Work at the Same Workplace Which Took the Path Towards Authenticity. How Would You Describe Our Cultural Values?
Through my eyes who we want to be and the path where we are now can be different. I think that it’s easier for me to say who we want to be rather than really who we are now.
We want to be a company that is really fair towards people, we want to be a company that is creating the conditions that help people to feel at home, to be really a part of something and not just „mechanical“, a small thing in the large machine. That people actually belong here and they can engage and bring their whole selves without filtering through.
We do that through different measures, for example through transparency, being transparent on the fact that we try to be fair and the fact we try to create a place that is engaging, that is not causing burnout.
Trying is the difference between who we want to be and who we are currently. Our values are just a toolset, some kind of guidance to reach those two states of fairness and engagement.
The Meaning of Workplace Authenticity
Are the Values of Fairness and Engagement Always Part of How You Define an Authentic Workplace?
Not necessarily, every workplace should choose for themselves what is authentic for them. The guidance here to find what is being authentic lies in the purpose and the company culture, and what kind of values they have.
So if we have a completely different set of values, for example, more corporate, more efficiency-driven, more performance-driven, that could mean authentic as well, as long as you draw into that kind of company the people that want to be part of it. That they feel like doing things in that kind of manner feels authentic to them.
The definition of authenticity isn‘t that you can be whoever you want to be and feel great at the company, it’s more about the right match. The right match between the kind of company, the kind of an organism it is, and then the kind of people it contains and how comfortable they feel in the frames of the company to be themselves, to bring certain attitudes or certain beliefs into the game.
An Authentic Workplace Would Then Be a Workplace That Knows Its Core Values That Are Transparent With Them and Then Hires in a Way That People Match With Those Values?
Yes. Maybe the people don’t match right away, but the company is authentic towards them, so telling them what they are as a company and how they live up to their values, and asking if they are eager to take up this challenge.
Recently I observed a hiring process for an intern and the lady who was being interviewed was coming from a completely different kind of company culture. It was revealed throughout the conversation and we saw it in her. She was not sure if she would fit with our values, but there were some aspects that interested her, that may be a good choice for her as well, like being a part of a more engaged, or more powerful mindset in terms of individuals.
So it doesn’t have to be a match from the very beginning but authenticity means that we are not selling up ourselves, we really say what we are and then face the consequences of people who might say you’re crazy, “imagine being part of that kind of company” and I know we always had that kind of reactions as well, and that’s OK!
Workplace Advantages of Authenticity
From Your Experience, What Are the Benefits of Being an Authentic Workplace?
It’s healthier. Once you’re there and when you feel that this is the place where you belong and where you can be your whole self without pretending or thinking about who to please, it’s just easier, it‘s less strain, less stress, it’s less attention to the appearances and just more being in the flow, not thinking I need to watch out how should I behave or show up in this meeting.
In our company culture, for example, we have the check-in at the start of meetings, not everybody uses it this way but if you feel bad then you can say you feel bad. But if you feel that in your company culture you can’t say that because it wouldn’t be welcome in a way that is understandable, that would only worsen your state of mind.
This is just a small example, but this can be taken on a grander scale of consequences.
It’s as well comfort. Comfort for individuals who are part of this kind of company, of authentic workplaces where they have a very explicit frame of who they are and indeed we try to live that.
Of course, it is always ideal and we’re human beings but I think that it ends up with people who are just happy. Or if they are not happy then that’s okay too because as part of the authentic workplace it’s okay to say you’re not happy and then the question is what do you do with it.
This is from the individual level and from the systemic level, on the greater scale it means for the companies that people are loyal, people are faithful, and people don’t wanna leave.
I know quite a few examples of people leaving and after 3-6 months they came back because they struggled to find a place, they couldn’t find anything that’s close to that.
They thought that they would get better money and they did, but it showed that money is not giving them as much value as the fact that they can be who they wanna be and feel accepted and feel like a part of something greater.
Also resilience. Those systems are just more resilient, they don’t have to be the most profitable, that’s not what they are after. Of course, they need to be profitable but for those places, it shouldn’t be the end goal, that’s not their purpose, and that’s not what they are usually after.
So, from a systemic perspective being an authentic workplace contributes to having more loyalty, more happiness, and better results, and from the individual perspective, it just brings more health and balance.
Of course, nobody really measured, because the situation is always complex. It is never just one factor entering the game and causing A causes B.
It’s unmeasurable, that’s why they are values. If somebody would ask me „how much will we earn from this“ that is a red sign and usually those transformations have failed because an authentic culture doesn’t give you the ideal quick win or the 1+1 equals 2.
Looking at the Individual, Do You Think That One Can Live Authentically in a Workplace That Does Not Share This Value?
I think so.
It will depend on how strong the psyche of that person is, and how resilient they are.
It is possible to be in that state and push the boundaries and not care that somebody or a group of people doesn’t like me because I say things that I say or because I show up in the way I show up.
There are individuals that could live that way and even not suffer like mentally through this because they are so strong. This person needs to be very sure and know themselves very well and feel very good about themselves because there is no full acceptance.
It will be really hard for you to stand your ground and also not get damaged by this kind of situation.
You Mentioned a Couple of Times the Mental Impact of Not Feeling You Can Be Authentic in a Company?
Yes, the question is really what are the costs of not being authentic.
It mostly trickles down to the energy that you need to invest in certain contexts and to your mental health in the way that you might experience certain psychological triggers such as feeling not accepted or feeling judged.
All of this usually comes down to the fact that your basic human needs are not fulfilled and when that happens different things might pop up. Maybe nothing will happen there in the short term, but if it’s not a one-time thing, if you’re constantly in this kind of situation, then it might be really harmful to your psyche, to your self-esteem.
And that goes also down to the families. A concrete example would be a neighbor of mine. The company and the way the company has been interacting with this one person from the family throughout the time led to a family crisis, it was a slow process though, it took 10 years to reach that point.
So it’s on the individual but it doesn’t stop there. Those struggles we take them to our houses, we take them to our friends, it’s a kind of domino effect and the question is OK how intense it is and how long it lasts.
So that means that you need to have a workplace that is authentic and you need individuals that can live up to this authenticity as well and feel comfortable with this authenticity.
How to Transform a Company to Become Authentic
Looking at the Reality of Startups, Most of the Time They Don’t Have the Money or the Mind Space to Really Think About Culture and Values. Often It Feels That Setting up Values Is Just a Chapter in the Latest Book the CEO Has Read So Let’s Make up Some, so How Would You Build or How Do You Transform a Company to Become Authentic?
First of all, speaking from the experience of seeing around 50 of those kinds of transformations and being an active part of around 20, it’s much easier to build it from scratch than to transform a company.
Transforming a company that is already existing with 50+ employees, it’s just damn hard.
The further away from the picture that the owner or the group of stakeholders has imagined this company should be in terms of the culture and what the authenticity means for them the more difficult it is.
There are cases when you don’t know upfront, you learn this along the way but there are also cases where, exactly as you said, somebody, read a book and thought “that’s what it should be”, hire a consultant and say “you make us that”.
The intention is always great but if it’s already difficult for those who are the initiators to really live it themselves then how can we expect the company to live it?
I haven’t experienced any transformation that would happen bottom-up, it’s always starting with the top, even if sometimes triggered by bottom-up symptoms.
Introducing from scratch is easier. The ones I‘ve seen have been most successful because what happens is that you have this conscious choice. If you make the conscious choice for a certain value, for example, engagement or transparency, and you build it from the very beginning, then this is already ingrained in your hiring process.
But then the question is, how much of the idea is your true value. A great test is how your family looks. If you’re the owner of the company or you’re setting up a start-up and you‘re thinking about the culture or being authentic, how do you live your life outside of your company, what kind of values drive you?
If there is a large discrepancy then it will be very hard for you to build that company.
For the owners of the start-ups what authenticity really means, and if it’s a group of people who are starting the company then it should be asked to the group and it should be some kind of consent, not consensus. Looking for the ideal thing that we all can agree on is something for us, something that’s workable.
What is important, whether you transform the company or build it from scratch is to have very strong leadership that is very conscious, not just saying words about really living them. This is the best way, there’s nothing better than that. No bunch of consultants can do that trick.
Once you have analyzed the values and principles and behaviors then you can trickle them down in the company.
Here the size of the company does matter, and a reason why transformations are difficult is that you usually meet in those companies the existence of sub-cultures.
The culture within departments and teams can look quite different than in another team, depending on the leaders of those teams, who you are connecting with on a day-to-day basis, who is the most present role model, and their set of values.
Some subsets can be more difficult than others depending on their own culture and how much we need to transform to get there.
Workplace Authenticity Issues
What Are the Main Challenges That You Can Face When Trying to Transform a Subset Into Being More Authentic, Adapting to the New Company That They Are Becoming?
The largest challenge is the stability of the system. The first step is to check if there are any other major changes or challenges that the company is facing right now.
If yes, we should not transform because for this kind of transformation you need to have certain conditions in place in order to enhance the chances right and not burn the resources.
Another challenge is also the level of leadership itself. It depends on what has been set already, what are the current subsets and how are the group dynamics in the particular parts of the company.
It is one thing that leadership at the top of the company says „yes let’s do it let’s be authentic“ but then you also meet leaders along the way who are not believing in it or they didn’t give their buy-in and that is a large challenge.
You know then that it will hurt and it will take time.
There are a few options: you could go into coaching but you never know if it’s gonna work out. Coaching is as well a process that is gonna take time.
Along the way, the team of that leader might also suffer or experience some struggles because of being in the mindset of “the company is changing, living a certain way and we are still behind, we are all the time behind”. This is a stigma that’s happening “we’re the worst in the company, we’re never catching up no matter how hard we try”. In this case, usually, the leader doesn’t have the strength of the values or the mindset to pull them towards the company and stop this win/lose mindset.
The second path which I’ve been observing is that those leaders just quit. Though that’s also not the ideal state as it causes some kind of trauma and disturbances in the system.
The third option is that they stay and it creates this limbo where they don’t change, the team doesn’t transform, the company moves forward and it creates just a larger and larger disproportion and disconnect.
That is challenging because people just get confused with mixed messaging and behaviors inside the company, so what should they believe in, what is authentic?
Another part of the equation of challenges is just individuals, people with individual
needs and sets of values. The fact that they, although with the newer generations may be less and less, usually come from a setup where authenticity hurts.
Starting with the families, we didn’t unfortunately always live after the standards that we want to live as a family and then we’re going to education and then we’re going to the workplace and by then we have become this very skeptical person, not very happy about the fact that we are transforming because why would we transform, status quo is better.
Those are the three main challenges: stability of the system, the leaders and their mindsets, and looking from the bottom-up perspective of the individual people.
Thank You Gabi for This Interview and Insights Into Authentic Workplaces! Any Last Words?
Nothing that’s valuable is easy.