Just be cool. Just be yourself. Just be who you are. Just be honest. These reassuring little nuggets are often the best advice we get about being authentic, but the truth is, they don’t always apply at work.
In Gist’s 10 Characteristics of the New Workstyle, we talk about authenticity as a shared passion for work. We propose dynamic, multidimensional products represent the environment and people who created them. But do passionate, authentic people, mean authentic, dynamic products? Not necessarily.
Putting authenticity into action at work starts with people working on what they’re passionate about, using tools, techniques and processes that work best for them, with the common goal of helping the end user, customer or consumer.
Finding your workstyle
A workman is only as good as his tools and if those are out of step with the creative process, then the product, project or team suffers. What is really important in cultivating authenticity in the workplace is encouraging authentic work practices, rather than authentic personalities. It’s more about giving workers the freedom to choose their tools than the freedom to practice scream therapy in a conference room. In life, the authentic self may take precedence but at work it’s more about finding and doing what works for you to deliver results.
Here’s a personal example. In another life, I worked at a public relations firm in San Francisco. My clients were exciting technology companies and startups and I envied the way they were allowed to work: from home, on Macs, on Google Apps, in their pajamas, over IM, from Puerto Rico, in the middle of the night, from a coffee shop, on an iPad, using every cloud application imaginable, sans meetings, sans titles, sans IT policies. It was a mashup of awesomeness. Paradoxically, I was provided an outdated machine to work on, which lacked mobility, battery life or even a hint of coolness. I was chained to my landline phone and imprisoned by three paper thin partitions and the humiliating glass wall of my cubicle and met with daily battles to access the dreaded VPN. Cloud applications were publicly touted as the way of the future in technology, but privately dismissed as a security risk remedied only by licenced software deployed behind a firewall. Working from home was frowned upon and Instant Messaging, video conferencing and collaborative tools were used by few and almost in secret by the most junior staffers. And then there were the meetings…oh the meetings. To give credit, this agency was full of nurturing managers, who encouraged me to be myself, embraced my quirks and listened to my suggestions about new ways of working.
Even so, the disconnect between the way I worked, the way I wished I could work and the way the clients who I represented worked, made me feel grossly inauthentic, effected my morale and likely prevented me from performing to my greatest potential.
For me, it was more important to be given the opportunity to work authentically, in my own style, than it was to reveal my “authentic self” at work.
Fortunately, in the context of the New Workstyle, is seems almost as unlikely for a company to tell its staffers what they can and can’t eat for lunch as it is to tell them what tools they have to use to get their work done.
Choosing what to work on
In addition to choosing our workstyles, choosing what we want to work on is equally important in moving towards the authentic New Workstyle. At a macro-level, we see:
- people moving in between jobs at a more rapid rate, delivering results quickly and then moving on
- more ad hoc collaborations between people who simply like working together
- more interest-based business relationships, generated through common online connections
- people becoming increasingly specialized in areas of business they find more enjoyment in, rather than being a jack of all trades (and a master of none) and being able to more easily market those specializations
Within the enterprise, this is emerging as a trend inspired by Google’s 20% Time, which places value on people’s individual pursuits and recognizes their passions as a great source of ideas and insights for the business. Google’s mechanism for doing this is simple: all engineers are free to spend 20% of their time (around one day a week) on pet projects and personal pursuits rather than on company priorities.
(Gmail Labs show the value of encouraging authentic work practices to drive product development and value for the user)
The logic: the company is relentlessly rigorous and inventive when it comes to hiring the best people for their culture (which includes people with wildly diverse backgrounds and experiences) and its leaders are interested in bringing all of their ideas and insights and energies into play. They figure that those individuals will come up with all sorts of new product ideas and directions for the company that the management team couldn’t possibly figure out alone. And that’s turned out to be the case: 20% time has yielded important new products like Google News and Google Suggest.
While it may not be achievable to have everyone in a business working on what they like all the time, a definitive shift towards this aspirational goal is in progress, a la The New Workstyle.
Authenticity as a service
Chris Brogan recently blogged about the question of workplace authenticity, calling special attention to a key action step in authenticity – being helpful:
“There’s a lot that goes with true authenticity that isn’t helpful. Instead, the people we connect with would be much better served if we chose to be helpful instead. “Helpful” is a far more useful frame of reference than authentic… be honest with yourself and filter that into whatever it takes to be helpful to others. Present your most helpful side to the people who need it, and do so with as much genuine interest in other people’s success as you can possibly muster. ”
Steve Jobs resignation is a perfect example of this idea in action. From his resignation announcement:
“I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.”
Because authenticity can easily be mistaken for “being who you are”, being honest, or taking a warts and all approach, it can often seem incongruent with business strategy, where it is prudent to put your best foot forward. The principle of helpfulness can be used as a guide towards the authentic path. Where we might question the best way to proceed authentically in a situation, a focus on how we can best serve those we’re working with keeps things simple.