Being Authentic Has Even More Value for You Than for Your People

I had an interesting conversation with an executive coaching client recently. He’s a direct, candid person, and he expects everyone to behave that way with him. He was concerned that if he was less than 100 percent honest with his colleagues and subordinates, it would mean he was being inauthentic. And he thought of his 100 percent truthfulness as making sure everyone knew what he thought and believed, whether his thoughts were positive or negative.

Some people appreciated his forthrightness, but others certainly did not. While my client considered himself honest and forthcoming, his team members and colleagues sometimes found him harsh, unyielding, or even unempathetic.

What’s the Difference Between Authenticity and Honesty?

I did a bit of reframing with him because authenticity is really about being true to yourself and following your own values and beliefs, rather than expressing everything you think or know to others. When you are internally congruent, your self-honesty is likely to come across to others as honesty and authenticity. But that doesn’t mean you need to tell others everything that’s in your mind or that you must have the last word to assert your point of view. Sticking to purpose lets you be even stronger and more skillful in how you confront subsequent situations.

To illustrate this point, I told my client about how I once took my toddler for a walk in a stroller and passed a neighborhood dog. I had been quite afraid of dogs as a child, and I still was as a young mother. But I realized that if I showed my fear, my child would learn to be afraid, so I told myself all the things I knew about dogs and why it was going to be okay—and I was able to deal with the dog as if I had no fear. 

Was that inauthentic? I knew I was pretending, but if the dog couldn’t tell I was afraid, then in effect I actually was less afraid than I had been. Was I truthful in front of my child? Not completely. But I was authentically serving my purpose of being a good parent and not frightening my kid with things that had frightened me. And thanks to this approach, over time, I became less afraid of dogs myself.

Decide How You Want to Come Across

In a work environment, particularly if you have leadership or managerial responsibilities, there are several ways to think about the tension between being honest and forthcoming and being authentic.

Focus on what’s best for the other person, not for you. You may feel better if you can get an opinion or a concern off your chest. But if they can’t take it in—perhaps because you’re coming on too strong or they feel unsafe in light of your emotional reaction—they may close down and shut you out. Empathy, compassion, and skillful communication are all leadership requirements.

Get your priorities straight around your responsibilities. What happens when you know you’re going to have to lay off a team member or that they won’t get the promotion they wanted? It’s your job to protect decisions that affect the organization, so you can’t go blabbing these things simply because you think that not saying them means withholding the truth.

Consider whether a given communication will support good behavior and performance. Let’s say a colleague makes an unkind remark that undermines one of your team members. Telling the team member is likely to hurt them and escalate the situation, so discretion may be a more helpful response. It’s better to discuss with the colleague who made the remark how to repair whatever the problem is and communicate differently about it.

Your successful leadership and management depend on relationship. You are in relationship—a professional one—with your team members, so if you’re disappointed in their behavior or performance, it’s legitimate to say so. And if you care about what’s going on with them, it’s also valid to share that. Your job is to figure out the big picture and the long term and behave in ways that serve them, rather than acting on fleeting impulses.

Watch for tendencies to self-justify. Sometimes a team member will behave in a challenging way. Rather than rising to your own defense, encourage them to tell you everything that’s on their mind so you can really take it in and understand what’s going on with them. Then you can choose a measured response to serve your larger purpose rather than your momentary frustration or annoyance. If you scare team members off or they think you’re not interested, that will injure the relationship.

 Guard against your own desire for relief. Telling someone about something that’s bothering you can be a way to lessen your own load, which is why well-placed venting can be helpful. But if you’re the person in the situation who has hierarchical power, your own comfort or satisfaction are beside the point. It’s the well-being of your people and the organization and its purposes that you should hold paramount.

Onward and upward—

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