Over the past few years, as DEI has come further into the corporate spotlight, so too has the idea of ‘bringing our authentic selves to work’. This phrase appears across countless careers pages and values statements, as companies shift to position themselves as places of belonging. In contrast to the workplace norms of even just a decade ago, modern organisations – for the most part – now understand that fostering a culture of psychological safety is imperative for both work engagement and employee wellbeing (Sutton, 2020), in addition to having a powerful impact on business outcomes.
The ethos of ‘it’s not personal, it’s business’, the necessity of applying a hardline separation to our private and professional lives, the work-self and the weekend-self – now feel like deeply outdated concepts. The Covid-19 pandemic blurred the once sacred lines between our homes and our workplaces; children and pets came into the frame on virtual work calls, we saw into each others’ living rooms, and putting on suits started to seem ridiculous.
But the pandemic accelerated a conversation around authenticity in the workplace that had long been happening…
In this article, we explore the relationship authenticity has with power and identity, as well as steps organisations can take, both on an individual and organisational level, to create cultures that are authentic and inclusive.
How is authenticity defined?
Authenticity can be defined as the alignment of one’s behaviour with their true or inner self (e.g. values, beliefs, goals; Rogers, 1961). ‘State-based authenticity’ progresses this definition one step further by arguing that the degree to which we are able to be authentic is determined by the environment we find ourselves in (van den Bosch & Taris; 2014).
As such, individuals can elect to be more or less authentic in any given situation – a decision that hinges upon the existence of psychological safety. Consequently, individuals from underrepresented groups often find themselves navigating a professional necessity – code-switching at work.
Code-switching at work
The statement ‘We want our people to bring their authentic selves to work’ – whilst well-intentioned – often rings hollow.
There’s little doubt that curating one’s work persona takes time and energy – energy that could be better spent bringing creativity and innovation to the work that we do. But for those who are from historically underrepresented communities, this ‘code switching’ at work has long been a professional necessity:
- For LGBTQ+ individuals, for example, it might be second nature to quietly assess the safety in the room before disclosing the gender of their partner.
- And non-white individuals might automatically alter their tone of voice, accent, and presentation when entering a professional environment of mostly white people.
When we know that we are the only ones like us in the room, we acutely feel the pressure not to transgress from the (white, heteronormative, patriarchal) norms of an organisation. We are hypervigilant and fearful of seeming uninformed, unprepared – or of being perceived as ‘scruffy’ or ‘unprofessional’ (there are deep-rooted biases coded in whether our natural hair, for instance, is perceived as ‘appropriate for the workplace’). We’ve often spent our entire working lives carefully curating our professional brand because subconsciously we know that we are existing in spaces not built for us.
So the statement ‘we want our people to bring their authentic selves to work’ – whilst well-intentioned – often rings hollow. This type of statement is, in part, a positive sign that companies are thinking more deeply about inclusion and belonging. Many are finally recognising that their working culture may not be serving the diverse range of people they would hope to attract and retain, and are making a statement of intent to change the status quo. This, however, often flies in the face of decades of people’s lived experience in the workplace. For example, as queer individuals, being our authentic selves often means coming out again and again, a process which can be emotionally draining.
Is it possible – or even reasonable – to expect your employees to suddenly feel comfortable sharing elements of their personal lives (e.g. their status as a single parent, their mental health struggles, or their LGBTQ+ identity) that life has taught them they might be judged harshly for – or that might even harm their professional ambitions?
Identity, power and authenticity
It is clear that being authentic at work is not easy or simple, and even more so when we consider the relationship between authenticity and power. Cha and colleagues (2019) research developed an organising framework of authenticity at work, with a focus on viewing authenticity through the lens of power. Both the individual experience of authenticity, and the external perception that one is behaving authentically, can be highly beneficial for both personal and social power (i.e. it can boost well-being, engagement, performance, and career progression).
However, when individuals behave authentically in a way that goes against the valued identities, organisational values and norms, and emotional expectations of the company, they can expect to experience a backlash and a decrease in their social power (i.e. losses in terms of job performance, perceived trust, and career progression). And when individuals act inauthentically to conform to the values and norms of the organisation, they can expect to experience a decrease in their personal power (i.e. losses to personal wellbeing, and work engagement). As such individuals may be forced to engage in a process of identity management, in order to navigate misalignment between the values of the organisation and their own values.
This is none truer than for individuals from marginalised groups whose social identities may be devalued by organisations and may feel significant pressure to hide their identities for fear of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping.
Buckingham Palace controversy
Take the recent controversy at Buckingham Palace as a pertinent example. Ngozi Fulani, a Black British woman & the CEO of Sistah Space (a domestic violence charity which serves women & families of African & Caribbean descent) was invited to a ‘Violence Against Women & Girls’ event at the Palace. As a Rastafarian, who attended wearing clothes which authentically represented her culture, she spoke out afterwards about the racist treatment she received from Lady Hussey, one of the late Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. She was patronised and demeaned, her hair was touched without consent, and she was interrogated about ‘where she was really from’ despite repeatedly answering that she was born in the UK. Her choice to speak out about this experience resulted in torrents of abuse, such that she was forced to temporarily step down from her work as CEO.
Despite being invited as a guest of Camilla, the then-Queen Consort for what should have been a positive experience showcasing her work in the community, her experience was blighted by racism and sustained online abuse after-the-fact.
This shocking example illuminates what many of us already know. That – whether or not we are invited, told to bring our authentic selves, and ostensibly welcomed into an environment – we must always be on guard for the rug to be pulled at any moment. If indeed we do bring our authentic selves, and face racist abuse or microaggressions as a result, speaking out often only worsens our social ostracisation.
What can you do as an organisation?
Companies need to build inclusive cultures where individuals feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety. This is the only way to signal to employees that they can be truly authentic at work without repercussions. Research conducted by Waller (2020) suggests a two-pronged approach to building belonging and psychological safety in the workplace, and this focuses on practical applications at both the individual and organisational level.
On an individual level
Help foster high-quality working relationships
Offer employees training in interpersonal skills (e.g. listening skills, communication skills, emotional intelligence skills, compassion & empathy skills), which can enhance employees’ capacity for positive relationships.
Help employees to feel valued
Make sure employees have the necessary technical skills and training required to do their jobs efficiently – particularly for helping to build a sense of self-efficacy for all employees. You can also provide clarity on the expectations, requirements, and boundaries of roles, which further cements feelings of competence and value at work.
Identify adaptive and constructive resolution strategies
Workplace counselling or coaching practices can help employees to identify and employ constructive coping strategies if they are faced with a feeling of not belonging. Whilst this might help to ease some discomfort, this should not be employed at the expense of serious cultural change.
On an organisational level
Help foster high-quality working relationships
Focus on building work practices that encourage knowledge sharing across functions. Practices might include performance appraisals that incorporate expectations about collaboration, information sharing and cooperation, and rewarding employees for such behaviours.
Help employees to feel valued
Consider implementing less structured hierarchies, and more autonomous job designs. This can signal to the employee that they are perceived by their manager and organisation as trusted, competent, and valued. You can also allow for autonomy, provide positive feedback, involve employees in decision-making, and champion recognition and reward for distinctive contributions, all of which will further help employees to develop a sense of unique, differentiated value.
Leaders need to convey a message of inclusivity to their employees and the organisation. This can be supported through development programs that focus on building inclusive leadership skills. Focus can also be placed on improving leaders’ awareness of their influence in creating supportive environments – and how they can shift the dial to positive cultural change through role modelling.
Balance shared characteristics of individuals from marginalised groups with unique individual qualities
Companies can look to emphasise commonalities amongst employees such as having a shared work goal, vision or mission. While simultaneously advocating for a culture of diversity by recognising each employee’s unique talents and strengths.
Building a culture of authenticity
It is not enough for companies to make hopeful platitudes about wanting employees to bring their authenticity into the workplace. Even with the best of intentions from senior leaders and HR teams, this simply won’t be the reality if a culture of belonging is not fostered across the entire organisation – from frontline managers, to junior team members. Only by applying a two-pronged approach which focuses not only on the individual, but the organisation as a whole, can a company hope to build a true culture of belonging.
Organisations must all strive to; build environments which make clear their values, live by them, and foster psychological safety for all, if we truly want our employees to feel able to bring their authentic selves to work.
On authenticity in the workplace
On inclusive leadership
Equalture’s Oops! I’m biased! two-part podcast episode in which Gwen Kolader talks about Inclusive Leadership:
Cha, S. E., Hewlin, P. F., Roberts, L. M., Buckman, B. R., Leroy, H., Steckler, E. L., … & Cooper, D. (2019). Being your true self at work: Integrating the fragmented research on authenticity in organizations. Academy of Management Annals, 13(2), 633-671.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Sutton, A. (2020). Living the good life: A meta-analysis of authenticity, well-being and engagement. Personality and Individual Differences, 153, 109645.
van den Bosch, R., and Taris, T. W. (2014a). Authenticity at work: The development and validation of an individual authenticity measure at work. J. Happiness Stud. 15, 1–18. doi: 10.1007/s10902-013-9413-3
Waller, L. (2020). Fostering a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace: Enhancing Well-Being and a Positive and Coherent Sense of Self. In: Dhiman, S. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Workplace Well-Being. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.