authenticity strong culture people leadership

I recently had a conversation with one of my “Leadership with Heart” podcast guests, and it inspired this blog post (get excited about the episode, it’s airing next week!) The topic has to do with authenticity. 

We talk about authenticity so often, constantly encouraging people to be their truest selves. I dream of the day when the world’s workplaces welcome everyone as they are. But what is true and authentic still has to fit into each organization’s values and norms. Nevertheless, what is true and authentic still needs to point towards goodness, just as a company’s values do. 

The Good Authenticity

Take the example of an authentic leadership team. They show up to work as their whole selves and lay the foundation for an inclusive culture. It’s a positive message on behalf of HR. But, an organization’s leadership team is meant to exemplify the organization’s norms and values. It’s the embodiment of these that usually land each person in their leadership position. 

An organization’s values and norms are easily measurable. You can observe the inner workings of a company and point out clear demonstrations of its values. The values are typically posted around the office on eye-catching posters, in handy brochures, painted in murals, or memorized in quippy sayings. 

Meanwhile, the organization’s norms are within the systems and processes that make up the daily business practices. Thus, the values and norms demarcate a clear line. On one side are the behaviors that are appreciated, recognized, and encouraged. On the other side are frowned upon behaviors that don’t fit into the culture and stick out like a red flag. 

Authenticity, on the other hand, is tricky. You can’t point to authenticity. It becomes subjective. How can you observe someone and say they’re inauthentic? We can’t know their inner workings. But these behaviors, whether just perceived as authentic, fall all around the line described above. The praised behaviors and the admonished ones can all be genuine. People can be themselves and simultaneously be a red flag. 

Yet, we encourage authenticity. Come as you are (but don’t be one of our red flags). 

The Dichotomy of Inclusion and Authenticity

And what’s the problem with wanting that? With hopes for an inclusive but unified culture? A diverse but cohesive and happy coexistence among all team members? After all, companies don’t go about creating norms and values based on exclusion. On the contrary, working in the consulting industry, I see almost every company is running towards more diverse and inclusive strategies. So if the culture, values, and norms are good, what happens when someone’s “authentic” still doesn’t blend well?

What do you do when you have an employee who embraces their whole self and is simultaneously a red flag? What do you do with an employee that seems to free flow with their opinions and strong personality? They claim their routine is “just being me,” but they come off as having an abrasive nature. Their peers feel affronted by them. Occasionally, they state their opinions unprompted in an antagonizing manner. Or maybe the way they communicate while being “truly” themselves is just rude? It’s very common. 

In other words, how do you deal with a thorn in the culture like an employee who offends people and claims it as their authentic behavior? If someone free flows abrasiveness and disguises it as their true self, they will detract from the culture founded on principles of inclusiveness and respect.

How do we reconcile these moments? Because I promise you they will continue to happen. 

The Reconciliation

Now, I don’t have some magical quick fix to resolve this common occurrence and make cultures idyllic everywhere. Which makes sense given how subjective the matter becomes very quickly. However, I can assure you that the simpler you break it down, the easier it will become. 

Listen to the voices of the diverse team within the organization when establishing norms and values. Then, if everyone aligns with the organization’s core, they can be held accountable by the same system. 

Rely on grace, but make wise decisions. I put these two together because yes, you should give your team grace and give yourself grace. Especially when uncomfortable situations occur, and someone’s perceived authenticity falls under scrutiny. That will be hard for someone to swallow. But, for the sake of the organization and maintaining a healthy culture, you can only go so far with grace. Eventually, if the discord is irreconcilable, then make the intelligent decision. Stand up for the values and norms you represent as a leader of the organization and make choices that lead to their fruition. Lastly, don’t let claims of authenticity mask someone living selfishly by the “I do me, and you do you” motto. There is no room for that self-centered mindset in your organization.