Being Real at Work: Lessons from #LikeABoss

Image via Pollen

Professionals are often advised to "be their authentic selves," but how authentic can you actually be at work? What if there are consequences for being your own version of authentic? And how can businesses become better at encouraging authenticity?

Those questions were the focus of Pollen's "#LikeABoss" panel on the issue of authenticity at work, which Connect the Grey's Janie and Colleen attended on April 27. Moderator Tenzin Kunsal, Pollen's Program and Outreach Strategist, led the discussion with panelists Anika Ward, Statewide Executive Recruiter for the State of Minnesota; Jaylani Hussein, Executive Director of CAIR-MN; Kabo Yang, Executive Director of Minnesota Women's Consortium; and Abdul Omari, Founder and CEO of AMO Enterprise and a member of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents.

In particular, the conversation centered on the need for leaders to set the tone and make space for authenticity within their organizations. The panelists shared their experiences with microaggressions at work: subtle comments, snubs, and office norms that can be perceived as hostile or exclusionary to people from marginalized groups. It was clear that many women, people of color, and immigrants hesitate to bring their true selves to work, as they too often receive the message that such authenticity is less than welcome.

The panelists shared advice for leaders on encouraging employees to be comfortable expressing their full identities at work and how embracing diversity, and not simply from a statistical standpoint, drives better results in the workplace. Here are a few of the takeaways we zeroed in on:

  1. Let people relax, and creativity will follow.
    Jaylani Hussein criticized the "Industrial Revolution" practices that persist in many workplaces: rigid hours, dress codes, etc., with penalties for breaking the rules. Creativity doesn't happen when people are herded into a boardroom and told "Be creative," Hussein said. Letting people relax and giving them flexibility leads to inspiration and greater confidence to try new ideas.
  2. Consider the impact you have as a leader — including unspoken messages.
    Anika Ward remembers feeling an uncomfortable power dynamic with community members when she started her job: People would treat her with deference that didn't feel right. She made an effort to change her dress and demeanor to break down the perception that she was a distant authority, and to genuinely include people. It's important to watch out for nonverbal messages — like a closed office door, or an overly formal manner — that discourage authenticity and connection.
  3. Admit when you don't know something, and when you need help.
    Many companies name diversity as a value or goal, but struggle to actually improve. "Don't say, 'We're working on it.' No, you're not," said Jaylani Hussein. Organizations have to be willing to ask for help to become more inclusive and change their hiring practices.

    Asking for help is important within an organization as well — pretending you have all the answers creates a culture where everyone is afraid to ask questions and take risks. "Continue to be curious, learn, and model to your employees that you are learning together," said Kabo Yang. 
  4. Embrace awkwardness and learn from conflict.
    As workplaces do become more diverse, and when people express their full identities at work, there are going to be awkward moments. Shying away from uncomfortable discussions prevents healthy learning and understanding, and reinforces the idea that difference is shameful. Anika Ward explained the benefits of learning from conflict, and spoke about the importance of being willing to make mistakes, hear critique, and do better next time. Abdul Omari's advice: "LISTEN. Without thinking about your response."
  5. At the root of authenticity is trust.
    When the event opened to discussion and questions from attendees, one woman made this observation about authenticity: It depends on trust. And trust is built over time, through many interactions, through behavior and processes throughout an organization, and through examples set by leadership. Developing a trusting rapport allows people to make mistakes and learn without relationships breaking down. It allows people to balance personal and professional needs, and to call each other out in a spirit of "we're all in this together."

We aim to help organizations build that resiliency and trust that allow people to be their best selves, to be creative without fear, and to feel fulfilled in their work. As we work toward those goals, we'll continue reflecting on these lessons from "#LikeABoss."

Are you able to be authentic at work? Have you experienced work cultures that stifled your "authentic self," or that encouraged it? Share your thoughts in the comments!