Authentic is defined as being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character; no pretensions.
Recent studies emphasize that bringing the real you, the whole self, an authentic self to work impacts ethical behavior. According to Maryam Kouchaki’s recent research with Mahdi Ebrahimi and Vanessa Patrick, it seems that “enabling people to bring their whole selves to work endows them with a greater sense of authenticity that ultimately leads to more ethical behavior, reducing business risk.”
The concept surprised me as it is contrary to what many of us learned was valued in the workplace. You kept your personal life and professional life separate. That “enabling people to bring their whole selves to work” increases more ethical business behavior was a revelation.
Yet on further reading and more research, the concept makes good sense. As Dan Ariely, PhD, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, whom I often quote regarding his views on ethics and honesty, fake (anything) encourages a less honorable image.
In his work, he asks … which is more powerful, the negative self-signaling in the fake condition or the positive self- signaling in the authentic condition? He says that understanding how slippery slopes operate can direct us to pay more attention to early cases of transgression and help us apply the brakes before it’s too late.
A new study led by Michelle Hong (Texas A & M Kingsville) which investigated the everyday experience of inauthenticity in business, found that faking one’s feelings in the workplace can lead to unethical behavior: “Feeling like a fraud makes people more likely to commit fraud.”
She says, “Being authentic is about acting in a way that is consistent with your core personal values.”
According to Ms. Kouchaki, employees “don’t want their professional responsibilities to interfere with these values or force them to compromise on them. They want to feel like they can express who they are fully at work, without being judged negatively or missing out on development and advancement opportunities; that’s the idea of enabling people to bring their “whole selves” to work.”
She asks, “which employee would you rather have on your team: one who embodies Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true,” or one who believes as does Michael Corleone in the Godfather, “that it’s not personal, it’s strictly business?”
She counsels, “Organizations would be wise to help employees avoid compartmentalizing their personal and professional identities.” When people separate their work identities from who they are at home and among friends, the separation can lead them to feel inauthentic, which increases the risk of unethical behavior.
While authenticity is a critical skill leaders can use to encourage employees to be themselves and do the right thing, authenticity is yet to be put on a level with strategic decision making, project management and budgeting.
Is this part of the reason why, according to the Gallup organization, the percentage of “engaged” workers in the U.S. – those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace – is only 34%… with 16.5% who were “actively disengaged” – a ratio of two engaged workers for every actively disengaged one?
And more than half of employees are willing to go to a competing firm in search of a better culture, with 48% of those saying they’d even consider working a 60 hour week in exchange for a better culture.
We may have a professional work identity and a non-work identity, yet if an individual thinks of these two as segmented and incompatible with a low integration factor, this leads to feelings of inauthenticity. So how do we build a culture that values authenticity, encourages the real you in the workplace and fosters more ethical behavior as a result?
Leadership’s role is to assure the organization’s mission and core values are clear so employees can connect to them. As I’ve said many a time, not plaques on a wall, or posters, but living, recognizing and rewarding employees for practicing them and modeling them in business practices.
Experts agree that transparency is critical. Leaders need to be real as well. Leadership sets the tone, it is not a “do as I say, not as I do” environment that encourages ethical behavior. Leaders need to recognize that today we live in a goldfish bowl and someone is always watching.
Authenticity is especially important to the Millennial generation, which now comprises upward of 35% of today’s workforce. They want a say and some control over what they do on a daily basis. This is not a respect your elders above all modality. They question and expect answers. This generation places emphasis on working for companies and buying brands whose values resonate with their own.
Companies need to create environments that value openness and honesty. That means the leader expresses authenticity by modeling it themselves. What can be done to encourage flexibility? Must it always be about rigid rules, by the book and only one way of doing things? Or can training and encouraging open, respectful communication and questioning be more valuable?
As Michelle Hong claims, “empower employees through job autonomy.”
So, let’s get real. It’s a good business model and reduces the business risk of fraud.