The topic of authenticity is often discussed in counseling sessions but rarely discussed related to the workplace. However, we live in an era where social media has perpetuated the need to showcase an idyllic life –– in a time where a news story breaks every few minutes that erodes the reputation of highly powerful individuals we once trusted, and in a day and age where old friends want to reconnect ultimately to try to get you in their downline of their newest MLM.
It is fair to say that most people have a heightened sense of skepticism. It is also fair to say that in the face of that skepticism, most people crave an era of authenticity more than ever before. This is not limited to life outside of the workplace –– many articles have been written about the importance of the boss-employee relationship and how the lack thereof is one of the largest factors of turnover within an organization.
The challenge? Those around us can sniff out inauthentic behavior just as well as “dogs and bees can smell fear” (to quote Jonathan Lipnicki’s character in Jerry Maguire).
While you may already know the best practices for authentic leadership listed below, it is our experience that common sense is rarely common practice. Knowing and doing are not necessarily the same. So while you may know much of what is listed, it’s the doing that makes the difference.
Let’s start with the fundamental issue posed at the beginning of the article. To learn how to be authentic, or to react authentically, treat authenticity as something we have instead of something we are. As complicated as that sounds, it is actually quite simple. In the perceived nature of human interaction, there is an element of intent that cannot be dismissed.
As a leader, having an employee’s best interest at heart is not something that should be overlooked. If you think about it, the phrase “constructive criticism” is an oxymoron. Coaching is an opportunity to contribute to another person’s development –– it is a two-way partnership where both parties share knowledge and experiences in order to maximize the person’s potential and help them achieve their goals.
Instead of considering criticism as something negative, consider this context: “As your leader, I am fully committed to your performance and to your success. My intent behind sharing with you this feedback is to provide information about your performance that I believe will have a profoundly positive impact on your ability to succeed.” Thus, constructive criticism is instead constructive feedback. Feedback about a performance deficiency does not have to be any less positive than reinforcing proficient capabilities.
To a certain extent, Zig Zigler’s famous quote that “you will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want'' is commonly mistaken. If the reason you want something from others is because it will benefit you, that is inauthentic behavior that few will trust. Authenticity, on the other hand, requires being selfless and actively listening to what someone is saying –– not formulating your response before they are finished. It is listening, asking clarifying questions, and then restating the point back to the individual to ensure you have a complete understanding before engaging in a dialogue to answer or resolve the issue at hand. So, when your intent is to genuinely serve those around you, you have begun to create an era of authenticity.
Part of the importance of authenticity in the workplace is to serve the relationships of the existing team, and any potential candidates who may join. That’s why it is important to reflect on how genuine interactions can influence the interviewing process.
Think of some of the most authentic personal connections or experiences that stand out in your life. While you may have only a handful that come to mind, that handful likely stands out as being extraordinary. Why? Simply put, you feel moved by authentic people, and you feel attracted to them. Similarly, you feel attractive when you are being authentic, and when you connect with someone who is authentically engaging. So, when you really connect during an interview with a candidate, what you usually are saying is that you encountered a rare moment of mutual authenticity.
Yet, in an interview, genuine connections can be tough to foster. As recruiters, we certainly understand three of the core functions of an interview are to assess if a candidate has the core capabilities to perform in the role, if you will enjoy working with them, and if they are genuinely excited about the opportunity. However, if everyone has their game faces on, trying to deliver the answers the other party wants to hear, how do you balance selling with a true connection? Remember, whether obvious or not, people sniff out inauthentic behavior.
Use the interview to screen one another. But if we go back to the importance of intent, help a candidate understand how as their leader, you have the ability to help them uncover who they have yet to become. Even having an open discussion about mistakes and failures can be uncomfortably refreshing. Remember, those are only things that one did, they are not who one is or who one can be.
So if authenticity is something we all want, but it’s something you are and not something you get, then authenticity must be impossible to teach, right? This is likely true and quite a paradox. Therefore, let’s start simple. Decide to stop being inauthentic.
Once you commit to making a change, a simple way to improve your authenticity is to recognize inauthentic situations. Catch yourself when you make a false compliment and try instead to offer up a genuine one. Recognize when you offer up a canned, knee-jerk response to a question and try to express an answer more firmly rooted in reality. Remove the hollow statements, the feigned interest, and the formulaic answers.
There are two most common scenarios in which colleagues pick up on inauthentic conversations. The first is small talk –– those situations in which you are grasping for something to say in order to avoid awkward silence. This does not mean that you need to ask deeply meaningful questions while collectively waiting for the elevator, but it is worth evaluating the types of discussions you engage in during those encounters. The second situations are in more formal settings, such as important meetings or professional reviews, where corporate jargon is often used in order to either avoid conflict or come across as in control.
If you want these situations to change and be replaced with more meaningful conversations, work on asking purposeful questions and perfecting your active listening skills, and deliver a professional recommendation that better represents who you are and what you believe. If you truly believe in what you say and the intent behind why you are saying it, others will as well.
At Kinsley Sarn, we pride ourselves on our commitment to building strong relationships with both our clients and the candidates we source. Through our transparent process, we take the time to listen to the facts to source leaders that will not only excel in the open position but most importantly, share your passions and are compatible with your company culture.
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This content was originally written by Karen Schmidt for the Sanford Rose Associates Executive Search Network in May/June 2018 and reworked by Kinsley Sarn in June 2022.