Over the past few years, study after study has shown the value of “authenticity” and “authentic leadership” in achieving business goals. Greater authenticity correlates with a more positive culture and greater team satisfaction, which in turn correlates with business success. It may seem like a simple equation, but putting it into practice is anything but. Part of the role of the coach or communication consultant is to help our clients navigate the complexities of authenticity.
At the most basic level, authenticity is the ability to “be yourself.” Again, that seems simple, but the reality of crafting a consistent identity presents quite a few challenges. Recent research shows that, depending on context, we make different decisions about what part of our “authentic self” to reveal. Multiple dimensions of our identity interact and both micro- and macro-level pressures can create a feeling of needing to revise the self on a moment-to-moment basis. As the context or environment we’re in changes, so does the aspect of our identity that we tap into most. If the self is, essentially, fluid and contextual, how can we be sure that we are showing up authentically as leaders?
Acting on values
Additional layers of complexity emerge when we move to put “authentic values” into action. First, espousing a value or set of values but failing to live up to them creates an environment of mistrust and alienation. Take for example the case of a CEO who holds up courage and transparency as a core corporate value, then has a representative from HR deliver negative feedback to employees. The message being delivered is that the corporate values are merely words on a page, not something to be lived at all levels of the organization. Employee satisfaction at this company is low and there is a pervasive atmosphere of insecurity and mistrust.
Even if a leader puts her values into action, it may not guarantee success. This comes into play frequently in cases where business is being conducted across cultures. A manager from the U.S. may rise to a leadership position by living out her authentic values through forthright negotiation. This same quality may work against her and even alienate her team if she must work with a team from a country like Japan or Finland that has a different negotiating style. If she hews too closely to her “authentic” style, it will actually hurt the business. Sometimes the values shaped, authentically, through past experience do not serve us as we move into positions of greater or different responsibility.
Given all of this complexity and nuance, how can someone ever hope to become a truly authentic leader? And how can we, as coaches and consultants, be most helpful in our clients’ efforts?
Being flexible and self-aware
One key lies in the power of flexibility and self-awareness. As human beings, we are constantly evolving in response to our experiences. Cultivating the ability to stay present with current circumstances and aware of how we are interacting with those circumstances can help avoid the pitfalls of getting too tied to a single way of doing things. All too often, statements like “That’s just the way I am,” can become crutches that allow leaders to stagnate in the name of authenticity.
While certainly helpful, flexibility carries its own risks. Take for example the manager who excelled at adapting to the given situation only to receive feedback during a review that his team sometimes perceived him to be disingenuous or even inauthentic. In this case, the very quality–the authentic ability to remain aware and adaptable in wildly varying situations–that had helped him achieve success, led others to see him as manipulative or shallow.
We can help clients resolve the tension between authenticity and progress by dispensing with the idea that authenticity is a concrete objective that can be achieved once then left on autopilot. The authentic self is created in each moment. To create a sense of momentum, we can support clients in adopting a process of ongoing learning and development, setting goals for each week or month, and treating it as an experiment of awareness. In this way, clients can authentically pursue new strategies, remaining flexible while staying open to the idea that any given experiment may be more or less successful than another. Adopting ongoing learning as a core value also helps ensure that clients get out of their comfort zones and pursue growth on a regular basis.
What communication professionals can do
As coaches and consultants, here are some concrete tools and strategies we can use to support clients as they grow and develop as authentic leaders.
Today’s technology allows companies to take the pulse of employees and measure their level of trust in management on a weekly, or even more frequent basis. Firms like knowyourcompany.com, TinyPulse, 15Five and others design and administer surveys that collect data that can help leaders stay on track. Used properly, this data can be an incredible tool for leaders navigating the line between flexibility and dogma.
Helping clients cultivate a personal “board of directors” composed of friends, trusted advisers and colleagues can provide essential feedback. The key to accessing this group wisdom is to create a safe environment in which feedback is welcomed and appreciated. This, of course, requires that you help the client cultivate a strong sense of self and openness to receiving feedback that may be difficult to hear.
Multi-rater (360) feedback is another valuable tool that gives leaders an anonymous “snapshot” of the impact their behavior has on their constituents.
An Authenticity Scale, as highlighted in the article “The Potential Use of Authenticity Scale as an Outcome Measure in Executive Coaching,” by Suzy Green, Ingo Susing and A.M. Grant, provides an evidence-based measurement tool that helps leaders increase self-awareness by comparing how they rate themselves on authenticity compared to their peers.
Focus groups are another way to help leaders gain insight on the current state of the organization and team as well as how employees view leadership actions vs. leadership values.
Crafting effective communication
A large part of authentic leadership is about communicating effectively. As consultants and coaches, we can help clients identify the different pieces of their identities and the values they have developed based on these identities. We can then help them identify or build stories and messages around those values. How can the personal narratives they tell about their values model and shape the organization’s culture? Part of this work consists of helping clients balance between authenticity and over-sharing, supporting them in maintaining healthy boundaries without sacrificing the capacity to connect with internal and external teams.
Developing cultural competence
In an ever more multicultural workplace, it’s important that today’s leaders build their cultural competence so they understand how their values and actions clash or align with others’. Assessments such as the Cultural Orientations Indicator can assist leaders in identifying their preferences against those of their employees and which preferences are, for them, non-negotiable or open to style-shifting. Identifying multicultural role models helps leaders learn the value and skill of style-shifting without losing sense of one’s authentic self.
Cultivating an authentic leadership style, then, is an intense, ongoing effort with no set end goal. It’s more about the cultivation and growth of the individual than about adopting a set of best practices or following a rigid path. As communication consultants and coaches, it’s our job not only to work on messaging but to help leaders walk the talk. It’s not easy, especially in today’s multicultural and constantly changing world, but the impact on organizational culture and the bottom line of the business is undeniable.
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