Every few years, there is a word that becomes the buzzword in management literature. In the context of personal leadership, that word now is authentic. Bosses, and increasingly, even younger employees, are told by motivation experts and leadership coaches on the subject to bring their “authentic" selves to work. It’s the starting point of a fulfilling, right-fit career: the ability to be truly genuine about who we are, and the aspirations, behaviours and attitudes that make us unique.

Being authentic at work ideally means bringing your personal values to work. For example, if you believe you should not turn a blind eye to unfairness, it would mean that you would speak up when a client or colleague who is unfair to a member of your team.

The argument is that only when your true self and your motivations are visible to everyone else, that you are in the zone of peak performance. Or, in a “flow" that perfectly blends the requirements of the job, to your personal goals.

This is a utopian, even a romantic, thought.

It’s also potentially dangerous. For instance, a misplaced sense of always wanting to be fair at work could end up with an unnecessarily heightened sense of righteousness. It could lead you to meddle in areas that don’t concern you.

Being an unplugged version of one’s self isn’t a freedom without responsibility. Increasingly, we come across professionals who “overdo" being themselves, without appreciating what the spirit of authenticity at work really means.

On the flip side, there is often systematic diminishing of personal identities to fit a company’s culture. This is equally undesirable.

For too long, a strict division between who you are at work, and who you are at home, was solid advice. But, for many of us, work is a critical part of our lives, and our workplaces are where we spend most of our waking hours. Bringing a watered down version of ourselves is hardly an ideal goal.

What’s the perfect mix then? Or, the golden middle, as we refer to it.

Let’s call this combination—between being an overdone version of yourself, and being a watered down one—calibrated authenticity.

Calibrated authenticity necessitates an acute awareness of the context and the situation, even as it actively urges the courage and confidence to be your real self.

So, while it might be authentic for you to verbalize your frustrations with a rapid stream of expletives, it wouldn’t be appropriate in any work setting. Great bursts of emotions—whether anger, rage or tears—might as well be truly felt, and even seem authentic, but regularly giving in to them, and subjecting your colleagues and teams to your outbursts, is often inappropriate and self-indulgent.

Less apparent excesses of authenticity are problematic too. For example, many senior people, working in newer, cooler industries with young colleagues, end up adopting a natural friend style to work—in their often well-intentioned bid to be equal colleagues. The advantage of camaraderie apart, an authentic friend zone can quickly seem excessive, when conversation flows into personal lives. It could as easily be about wardrobe choices. As most of the professional world becomes more informal, with even once-uppity industries relaxing the accepted code of attire, we’ve all seen less-than-appropriate work wear. Or, it could be about time, frequency and the medium of communication a colleague uses.

When does what is authentic to you become a nuisance or inconvenience for somebody else?

When done right, authenticity can work like magic. But, understanding who the audience is, and whom you are speaking to, or on behalf of (yourself, your department, your organization), should influence the authenticity you want to bring to work.

For example, one of us, early in our consulting career, almost shut out the interpersonal aspect that came naturally, because it seemed that a more deliverable-focused, analytical and problem-solving side was what the work culture demanded. But, the best one could be was to be average at those aspects. Holding back on fully deploying one’s interpersonal skills was a silly professional move.

It took some time to understand that interpersonal strengths aren’t limited to internal teams. They transport even better to client interactions, and are a distinctive business advantage. In this case, becoming more authentic to one’s personal management style, made an immense difference.

Similarly, being authentic could make that difference for you too. So, do find the courage to be yourself, but also make sure your authenticity isn’t an unfair or inappropriate imposition on others.

Art of Work focuses on extreme choices in the workplace and offers suggestions on how to find the doable middle ground. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is an author who now works in higher education.

Close