“In years to come authenticity will be understood as a key variable that separates successful from failing businesses, happy from disengaged workforces, and adaptive from inflexible organisations” – Robin Ryde and Lisa Sofianos
In Creating Authentic Organizations, Robin Ryde and Lisa Sofianos make a strong case for creating authenticity at work.
While businesses rarely have invested in authenticity as a major competitive advantage, a value-creating factor and driver of business performance, the authors are in no doubt that it is a crucial asset worth building.
What I particularly appreciated about this book is its ability to condense psychology with sociology and business. The result is a solid argument for taking individual responsibility in exercising the self at work. It develops a captivating journey toward personal discovery and self-expression within a corporate context.
“My authenticity sits with me, yours with you, and it is not our belief that it is anyone’s responsibility to find it or ‘fix it’ for someone.”
The manual also offers a variety of tips and guidelines that if followed, might help to “create authentic organisations, bringing meaning and engagement back to work.”
The prize of being authentic
“Much of our mental energy, our ideas, our passions, our physical effort and our time is deployed at work. The work we do goes some way to describing who we are, what we stand for and it reveals, in one dimension at least, a tangible and valued contribution that we make to the world. Authenticity and work matter.”
What does it mean to be authentic at work, and why it is important?
“Think of authenticity as the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit or character, despite external pressure,” write the authors. In this scenario, people are themselves at work as they are in their private life. They recognise who they are, without pretending to be something different, without wearing a mask to make themselves more palatable to others, and without suppressing their own important values. They bring the whole self to work ‘every day’.
The prize that this offers at individual level is significant. It includes greater levels of engagement, well-being, productivity, and commitment. People have high levels of motivation by applying their own thoughts and experience to the task in hand. They take pride in the work they do and leverage their particular strengths to the job. They also learn much more due to a deeper personal application.
The authors like to remind us that, if this is done right, then organisations benefit enormously too. For example, in terms of innovation. As workers seek solutions to their own challenges and feel able to freely explore a variety of possibilities, their resourcefulness and creativity increase. “Not only does this deliver a benefit to the task but it also raises capability across, and for, the organisation.”
Another advantage is the greater ownership in the workplace. As employees feel responsible for the results they create, they feel that they are more accountable for the product of their efforts. They have more ‘skin in the game’ and therefore more commitment to the success of the organisation.
The same applies to productivity and agility. Motivated and engaged employees constantly look for options to improve their work. As such, they are likely to be able to detect changes in the environment, and adapt more flexibly to changing circumstances. “They are also better equipped to see and act upon opportunities and will rightly feel empowered to act.”
Throughout the book, Ryde and Sofianos see people as self-governing individuals who are ultimately responsible for claiming and exercising their own authenticity.
I found this view particularly insightful. “Authenticity is rightly a concern for all, but it is for the individual to define it for themselves, to strive to attain it (should they choose to), and importantly to resist giving way to the temptation that it is the job of management to furnish it for them.”
They point out that something needs to happen for people to be more authentic at work. They explore a model, which comprises three overlapping areas, or ‘freedoms’:
- “Freedom to Operate”: it involves letting employees reach their own judgements on the best strategies for fulfilling the task they face, and letting them execute on this basis. “Employees are both invited and trusted to be creative in the way they shape and deliver their work.”
- “Freedom to Speak”: it is about allowing and encouraging employees to articulate their ideas, feelings, hopes and concerns without censorship. As a consequence, workers speak freely, share their views more honestly, and talk about the meaning and value of the work they do. They point out to opportunities and threats, and also discuss the ‘elephant in the room’, which “may be the most valuable contribution that can be made.”
- “Freedom to Actualize”: offering employees the freedom to assume and realise one’ own emergent personality and values at work.
However, claiming these freedoms is not enough. Workers have associated obligations. For example, within the Freedom to Operate, there are understandable limits to what is possible since organisations have a different ‘freedom to operate’ based on their industry. As such, employees are expected to appraise themselves of the corporate initiatives under way. Similarly, the more workers engage in discussions about the ‘elephant in the room’ (Freedom to Speak) the more they need to be sensitive and aware of the consequences for others in doing so.
Employees and the organisation are not the same
According to Ryde and Sofianos, authenticity in the workplace is created through the actions of individuals who come to influence and inspire others. Therefore, they believe that most of what needs to be done is tackled at the employee level through the adoption of their model.
However, the authors don’t treat the workforce as synonymous with the organisation. “Organisations can possess a power and identity that is different from the individuals that make it up. Each can possess a different symbolic value. And legally of course, employees are distinct from the entity itself.”
I found the additional ‘nudges’ that they suggest adopting at the broader organisational level, particularly helpful to ‘get it over the line’ on authenticity.
- “Publicly declare what the organisation stand for and will not stand for.” It requires a continuous analysis about what the organisation care about. This enables potential employees to know if they wish to join and customers to know what to expect, while other stakeholders can judge organisational performance.
- “Proactively engage in real, two-way, adult-to-adult dialogue with all that are interested.” Organisations that are respectful of their communities will be serious about establishing multiple means of communication.
- “Turn the organisation into a ‘glass house’.” In this context organisations make it a priority to be transparent about their performance, results, conduct and partnerships. They make this web of relationships visible.
- “Humanise the points of interaction between organisation and clients, customers, enquirers, etc.” The premise is that people want to feel connected to, understood by and involved in a trusting relationship.
- “Follow the organisation’s influence as far as it goes and assess the impact against its standards.” Any business affects a number of communities. Organisation that choose to be authentic, care about their conduct and impact on each of these domains. They feel a sense of responsibility and ensure that they principles are put into practice.
- “Admit to, and share learning from, mistakes.” Every company makes mistakes. The authenticity test is how those mistakes are handled when they arise – rather than playing them down, authentic organisations build on them.
- “Don’t change the deal and expect no one to notice.” No one expect organisations to remain static. Yet, once change occurs, companies have an obligation to explain this and to respect the reaction that might arise.
“Authenticity between colleagues and across all level of the system is of first order importance. Employees and culture come first in constructing authenticity and with it comes the benefits discussed, including trust, responsibility, accountability and engagement. With authentic people, we create authentic organisations.”
People may agree or disagree with the ideas presented by Ryde and Sofianos. However, managers of any type of organisation who choose ‘the freedom’ to be authentic at work, may find their suggestions particularly insightful to assist in modelling authenticity inside their workplace.
I applaud Ryde and Sofianos for tackling such a delicate issue as authenticity at work so firmly. I use the term ‘delicate’ because the notion of authenticity still faces huge challenges and unsolved discussions in many different settings.
Yet, Creating Authentic Organizations shows that the topic is worth taking seriously. Most people spend the majority of their waking hours working. The alienation from the self, holding the two worlds of work and home apart, is coming at a cost for the individual, but also for the organisation – stress, disengagement, unproductive results, etc.
Authenticity, in reverse, has a multiplier positive effect. It delivers greater benefits to employees and organisations alike, and in doing so, to customers and stakeholders.
“Where there is greater authenticity organisations will adapt more quickly and much more effectively to the volatile circumstances of the operating environment. This is a ‘win-win’ that is worth fighting for.”