Calling all Freedom Fighters: Leadership and authenticity

Posted on September 18, 2014

Last week I had the great pleasure of spending a morning with the 2014 Fellows in order to explore the impact of authenticity on workplaces. It was a very lively and engaged session and the Fellows made me work hard with insightful questions and debate, which was just what I was hoping for.

You may be thinking that authenticity is a rather random subject on which to spend a morning. It is seldom thought of as a major driver of organisational performance. We do not usually think of it as a source of innovation, or productivity, or even an adaptive mechanism. In fact, we may not think of authenticity at all. But I’d like to suggest that over the coming years it will be understood as a major variable that separates successful from failing organisations, happy from disengaged workforces, and adaptive from inflexible organisations.

To understand the importance of authenticity, and the struggle to attain it, we need to look at the evolution of work. Our industrialised past has created the conditions for what might be thought of as a ‘schism’ between our private selves and our work identities. In the pursuit of greater productivity and efficiency, years of industrialisation have seen a movement towards standardisation in the workplace. Efforts have been made to minimise variations in processes and behaviour, and necessarily to remove individuality. And so as we enter the workplace we find ourselves making changes to our language, demeanour, behaviour, appearance and even our values, so as to accord with a particular set of organisational norms.

The processes of industrialisation have left us with a workplace culture that serves to divide the self in two, and this schism creates tensions that can have a number of effects. For example, it can impact upon our wellbeing and cause serious anxieties when our deeply held values are in conflict with those of our workplace. It can cause a form of emotional dissonance and hinder engagement in the workplace. On top of this, our hyper-connected lives see more frequent incursions made by work into our private domains and we find ourselves switching rapidly between our work and private personas in order to accommodate the culture clash. At an organisational level we see the system really start to creak as our industrial norms meet a new world characterized by rapid change and complexity. Put simply, we have the wrong tools for the job.

So, where does authenticity come in? Well, employees in authentic organisations are able to approach their work in ways that express their individuality and they feel more personally invested and accountable as a result. They experiment to see what works best, building flexible and innovative organisations. And they examine why they do what they do and challenge assumptions. This allows people to really get behind the boundaries that are reasonable and necessary, and creatively challenge those that have been formed by habit or tradition. Authentic organisations generate trust and loyalty amongst stakeholders and clients. And authentic organisations inspire productivity and resilience as workers increasingly stand behind, protect and take pride in where they work.

Authenticity is not something that can be given; rather it has to be claimed. The engine beneath authenticity comprises three factors that we call freedoms, namely:

  • The Freedom to Operate is the extent to which an individual can organise their work in the way that best suits them. But more than this, even when it comes to alternative conceptualisations about what the task itself should entail, this too should be in the domain of control of the individual
  • The Freedom to Speak is the extent to which individuals are engaged in dialogue that is diverse, open, and meaningful and in a manner of their choosing. But more than this, the Freedom to Speak is a strong encouragement for workers to talk more often, more openly and more deeply about the issues they and the organisation faces.
  • The Freedom to Actualize refers to the scope for individuals to discover, learn and evolve their personalities within the workplace. This needs to be understood as a deep and dynamic process of awareness, development and change at the heart of individuals (a bit like Maslow’s Self Actualization concept, plus).

Leaders and managers, acting as Freedom Fighters, are key to building the capabilities of both individuals and the organisation so that employees can claim their authenticity. Here are some ideas about where they can make a start.

  • Role model authenticity by claiming your own freedoms. As managers exhibit greater authenticity this acts as an open invitation for others to do the same.  
  • Adopt a ‘Min Spec’ (Minimum Specification) approach to communicating tasks and outcomes and creating greater Freedom to Operate for employees to design their own approaches to their work.
  • Constantly interpret and share the values, culture, and strategic intent of the organisation in ways that are meaningful to individual workers to allow them to operate freely and authentically, but in line with the strategy.
  • Protect the space for people to conduct small experiments with their work and be clear that failure is an important and valued part of the process of learning.

And here are some organisational strategies to help create authentic workplaces.

  • Aim for transparency and think of the organisation as a “glasshouse” – where behaviour, values and responsibilities are visible for all to see.
  • Offer diverse workspaces that can cater for introverts, extraverts, groups and those who need quite time and allow people to choose what works best for them.
  • Create a multiplicity of forums for different kinds of dialogue and signal that even the difficult issues will be heard.
  • Break down structures of deference; this is a major roadblock to authenticity.

A final thought, we spend up to 70% of our waking time engaged in activity related to paid work, year after year. Over 4 billion people across the globe do the same. If this work is not allowing us to learn and grow and fulfill our potential, and if it isn’t meaningful to us, then something needs to change. And if we can make our workplaces fun, adaptable and more resilient then what is stopping us?  

Lisa is a coach for the Clore Social Leadership Programme, Director of a leadership and organisatonal development consultancy and an author.

Her latest book Creating Authentic Organizations: Bringing Meaning and Engagement Back to Work, Lisa Sofianos and Robin Ryde, (Kogan Page) is available in early October 2014. If you would like to read more, Fellows are entitled to a discount on the cover price. Just go to http://www.koganpage.com/editions/creating-authentic-organizations/9780749471439 and enter the code CAORG20 at checkout.

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