Encouraging Authenticity in a World of Conformity

Did you know that you can hire an authenticity consultant? Someone to come tell you how to be a more authentic version of yourself.

I have no idea how something like this would work. It’s absurd. How could someone tell us how we can be more like ourselves?

Unless people don’t really want authenticity. In which case perhaps they’re actually inauthenticity consultants. Designed to help companies encourage the illusion of authenticity within the bounds of what they consider to be acceptable levels.

So do we really want authenticity? Or do we only want consistency?

Just Be Yourself. Well, the Version of Yourself that Everyone is Okay With.

“We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.” — Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

I asked a question about authenticity on Quora. Someone threatened to “take me behind a dumpster and beat some sense into me” for just bringing up the topic.

Another Quoran recently asked whether it would be unprofessional to shave his head. I thought it was a joke until I saw some of the answers. People warned him against it. They suggested he conform and not draw attention to himself. Not because they thought it was right. But because in their experience, that’s what their organizations wanted.

They’re familiar with environments where consistency is prioritized over authenticity. That authenticity is only appreciated when it fits within the confines of what is familiar. Otherwise it’s the wrong kind of authenticity. And that makes people uncomfortable.

People seem to worry that authenticity will devolve into unprofessionalism. As if we start encouraging people to be themselves, they’ll start showing up at work without pants on. Or putting up hate propaganda on their cubicle walls.

But these outlier cases are rare. The fact that they get so much media attention when they do occur should be indicative of their scarcity. If they happened more frequently, then by definition, they wouldn’t be news.

So we can encourage consistency to prevent these infrequent concerns. And that’s been the practice in most organizations. We’ve focused on designing efficient processes and getting workers to follow them. And this will produce work that meets expectations and is all around non-objectionable.

But this path also brings worker disengagement. It creates a level of conformity that can stifle innovation. And it creates an environment that fails to make a connection with people.

The answer isn’t to eliminate all rules. There is a place for guidance and regulations. But with recent statistics showing that 70% of workers are unhappy with their jobs, we’re clearly not getting this balance right.

The good news is that this is reversible. We don’t have to continue down the same path of conformity and blind loyalty to a status quo. We just need to understand the benefits of authenticity. And then take action to bring out those benefits.

Help People Understand Their Purpose. Authenticity Brings Fulfillment

“If you don’t know who you truly are, you’ll never know what you really want.” — Roy T. Bennett

Success doesn’t come from an accomplishment. It’s a feeling of fulfillment that comes from pursuing something we value. It’s understanding what’s important to us and having the courage to pursue it.

In Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday tells the story of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman following the Civil War. Sherman, aware of his values and content with his accomplishments, retires to a comfortable life of happiness. Grant, in contrast, pushes down a path of constantly seeking more. His career and life were maligned by the difficulties of a corrupt presidential administration and he was publicly bankrupted in a failed financial brokerage house.

Grant had accomplished great things in his life, but his ego forced him to constantly look for more. And it led his life down an unfortunate path of corruption, bankruptcy, and pain.

When we stop being authentic, we hide our true selves. We hide our values and real purpose in life. We hide these key ingredients towards leading a fulfilling life. Without that authenticity, we chase accomplishments and distractions in a constant pursuit of more. And as Ryan puts it, we “waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want.”

When we can encourage people to define their guiding purpose, they better understand why they do the things that they do. They understand their values and guiding principles. And they’re able to make decisions based on them.

Instead of focusing on what position they want to gain, encourage them to understand why they want that position. Instead of asking what they want to accomplish, ask how they want to make a positive impact.

When we can encourage people to take the company’s mission and customize it to their own purpose, we let people live that purpose every day. Every day becomes another opportunity for people to demonstrate their values. And it’s this authenticity that leads to fulfilling careers.

The alternative is to always be motivated by more. Unfortunately, this leads to a life where you can never have enough.

Let People Show Up as Themselves. Authenticity Brings Focus.

“Keep your heart clear
And transparent,
And you will
Never be bound.
A single disturbed thought
Creates ten thousand distractions.”
- Ryōkan

I occasionally hear the advice, “fake it til you make it.”

Who would want to do this? It sounds exhausting. Who can perform at a high level while they’re spending energy pretending to be someone they’re not?

At this point, we’re all aware of the evils of multi-tasking. How checking our email every fifteen minutes prevents us from truly focusing on a task at hand. And Sophie Leroy’s 2009 study, Why is it so hard to do my work?, introduces the idea of attention residue, describing the difficulty our minds have in focusing on a new task.

If an email interruption every fifteen minutes is enough of a distraction to significantly derail our concentration, what impact would an inauthentic environment have? If we’re focusing our energy and attention on keeping up a charade, we’re not able to use that focus and energy on something worthwhile. If we’re in an environment that requires us to hide our true selves, it’s a constant distraction. One that never allows us to fully concentrate.

It’s not until we can be our full selves that we can be truly free of distractions. Anders Ericsson developed the concept of deliberate practice to describe the style by which top performers develop and master a field. Among other things, deliberate practice requires focused attention. In Ericsson’s words, “diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice.”

When we appreciate the parts of others that make them unique, we create an environment where people are more comfortable as themselves. We minimize distraction and create an environment where people can thrive.

Invest in People and Let Them be Responsible. Authenticity Brings Ownership.

Would you drive an hour out of your way to go to a specific grocery store? Or write letters to store management petitioning them to open a location in your city?

What about proposing marriage in a grocery store? Or writing and performing a high school musical all based on working and shopping in that store?

For many people this would seem an over-exaggerated level of loyalty to a grocery store. Unless, that is, you’ve ever shopped at Wegmans.

Wegmans has been listed among Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list since it was created in 1998. It’s ranked among the top ten for the past eight years, ranking second in 2017, behind Google.

And Consumer Reports subscribers again voted Wegmans the top grocery store in 2017. A spot the company has held since 2006.

And while the financial records are undoubtedly well managed and the company is run well, people love Wegmans based on the experience of shopping there. Every employee seems to make it their personal mission to make a positive impact on the customers.

Wegmans invests heavily in its employees. It sponsors scholarship programs and works with employees to plan for their long-term future. It sends employees around the world to gain the best training. It provides significant in-house training before employees are ever put on the floor and asked to work with the customers.

And then it allows people to be responsible to do their jobs. Wegmans doesn’t provide a daily operating procedure or a step-by-step manual. The company trusts that its people will perform their job in the best way they can. Because they’ve been trained to do so and they embrace the company mission of helping families live healthier, better lives through food.

By allowing employees the freedom to best deliver on the company’s mission, Wegmans encourages its people to provide customized solutions. It reinforces the personal interaction that customers feel when they’re in the store.

When we can give people the freedom to manage their job responsibilities, we often get a better solution than we could specify in a one-size-fits-all procedure. We also encourage people to embrace the company mission, increasing their engagement and ownership of their career.

Are we giving our people the training and the freedom that they need to perform their job in their own personalized manner?

If not, why not? The results would seem to speak for themselves.

Encourage People to Challenge the Status Quo. Authenticity Brings Innovation.

Bring up Southwest Airlines in a group of people and without fail, someone will say “I love Southwest!”

People love Southwest Airlines. And I’m no exception. I’ll gladly pay more to fly with them than take a cheaper competitor.

And the people who work at Southwest love it too. It’s energizing to be around people who are happy in their jobs and want to make a difference. The culture of fun, dedicated customer service that its co-founder, Herb Kelleher, created within the organization is something that shines through in nearly every interaction. It’s fun to fly with them.

There’s no shortage of amazing things that Kelleher did in setting up Southwest. But I think one of the most impressive, and most impactful, is the level by which he connected with his employees and encouraged every one of them to challenge the status quo.

Southwest didn’t invent the idea for a low-cost airline. It sought to become the airline for the common person.

Kelleher knew that if Southwest was to embody this vision, he couldn’t rely on a bunch of high-priced management strategists. He needed to encourage and embrace ideas from all levels. So he connected with people throughout the company. He solicited, and listened, and implemented ideas from everywhere.

Southwest’s practices weren’t a collection of best practices from other airlines. They didn’t try to copy what had worked in the past. They needed to completely abandon that status quo and start with solutions that embodied the common person.

And it worked. Southwest created a culture that spoke to people. People fly Southwest because they relate to this mission. They see Southwest as the airline of the common person because it’s an airline designed by the common person.

In 1994, Southwest employees took out a full page ad in USA Today and addressed the following Boss’s Day message to Kelleher:

Thanks, Herb
For remembering every one of our names.
For supporting the Ronald McDonald House.
For helping load baggage on Thanksgiving.
For giving everyone a kiss (and we mean everyone).
For listening.
For running the only profitable major airline.
For singing at our holiday party.
For singing only once a year.
For letting us wear shorts and sneakers to work.
For golfing at the LUV Classic with only one club.
For outtalking Sam Donaldson.
For riding your Harley Davidson into Southwest Headquarters.
For being a friend, not just a boss.
Happy Boss’s Day from Each One of Your 16,000 Employees.
-Kevin Freiberg, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success

I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate the loyalty and engagement that Kelleher’s practices brought to Southwest.

Where are we not seeking new ideas in our companies? Does everyone feel empowered to ask why we’re doing something or suggest something better?

Do our people feel as though their ideas are valued?

When we encourage people to question the current method, it energizes people and stimulates innovation. When we ask for, and value, others’ thoughts and suggestions, they feel empowered to continue looking for these improvements. And they’re more engaged and invested in the company.

So ask for the reasons behind why we do something. And let’s stop thinking that simply because it’s always been done that way, there isn’t a better way out there.

Southwest has shown us what happens when we encourage this thinking throughout an organization.

Encourage Candid Feedback. Authenticity Brings Creativity.

“In fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.” — Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull, co-founder and president of Pixar Animation Studios, would say that when they first start out, all of Pixar’s movies are terrible. The great ideas for movies and characters aren’t randomly snatched out of the air at the start. To create a movie that connects like Pixar’s do, or to develop characters that we identify so strongly with, is a process forged by tens of thousands of decisions. It relies on the iterative process of design, continuously reworking until that struggling draft turns into the soulful product that we associate with Pixar.

One method Pixar uses to facilitate this transformation is Braintrust meetings. The premise is simple, bring together smart, passionate people and charge them to identify problems and provide candid feedback. The Braintrust reviews each movie in development, and gives feedback and suggestions to the director. And up until this point, this process is no different than design reviews or stakeholder meetings at other companies. But the key difference is in authority. The Braintrust has none.

Without authority, the Braintrust cannot mandate solutions. They give candid feedback and suggestions to the movie’s team, but it’s at the discretion of the director and her creative team to use it as they see fit.

Pixar understands that the Braintrust’s solution would likely be less effective than the one that the director and her creative team can come up with. They’re more heavily involved in the process and more knowledgeable of the product. And they’re more likely to develop a solution that best fits within every other aspect of the film.

Pixar doesn’t rely on the expertise of its experience to create great films. It relies on this process of constantly challenging and testing ideas. It relies on helping people see issues, but encouraging them to own the solutions. And it transforms these ideas into movies that meet their, and our, high standards of quality.

When we encourage candor, and give people a vehicle to provide this feedback, we better position them to test and challenge their ideas. We no longer need to rely on excellence through epiphanies, but can forge that excellence through many different decisions and viewpoints.

And when we can remove the power dynamics from this feedback process, we’re able to reinforce individual ownership. We encourage people to own their product and invest themselves in its success.

Encourage Diverse Viewpoints. Authenticity Brings Broader Perspectives.

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” — Walter Lippmann

Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of seeking challenging ideas and diverse viewpoints. For his cabinet, he selected those who would challenge his views and build strength through diversity. He realized that to be the leader the nation needed, he needed to represent the different viewpoints that he was responsible for supporting. One biographer described his strength of leadership with the following:

“For a president to select a political rival for a cabinet post was not unprecedented; but deliberately to surround himself with all of his disappointed antagonists seemed to be courting disaster. It was a mark of his sincere intentions that Lincoln wanted the advice of men as strong as himself or stronger. That he entertained no fear of being crushed or overridden by such men revealed either surpassing naiveté or a tranquil confidence in his powers of leadership.” — Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography

Another great leader, Howard Schulz of Starbucks, grew up watching his father repeatedly lose different jobs. So he decided to run a company that his father would be proud of. And he’s lived those values.

He embraces diversity, opening his stores and jobs to anyone. And while he’s been criticized and boycotted as a result, he’s held strong to his values in the face of this adversity. He doesn’t tolerate diversity. He embraces it. He celebrates it. Starbucks has diverse leadership teams to best understand and support the diversity of their customer base.

And through the authentic culture he’s created at Starbucks, he’s built a level of customer and employee loyalty that continues to grow stronger. In Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, he covers his thoughts on this loyalty with the following quote:

“In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.”

When considering how to staff a project or build a team, it’s tempting to pull in the greatest supporters. Or choose people with similar viewpoints to minimize the confrontation. But the strongest decisions are borne through confrontation. And the best leaders invite this challenge because they know the organization will be stronger for it.

Celebrate People’s Weaknesses. Authenticity Brings Continuous Growth.

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” — Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit

When people feel a need to hide their weaknesses, they aren’t able to work towards improving them. And just as the worst problem is one that gets covered up, the worst weakness is one that goes unacknowledged. We’re destined to repeat the same issues.

Bridgewater Associates, a Connecticut investment firm, makes it a practice to truly understand people’s weaknesses. While most companies do root cause analysis following an issue, they also stop short of analyzing employees’ personal limitations that contributed to the cause. At Bridgewater, this process goes further, asking “What is it about how you — the responsible party and shaper of this process — were thinking that might have led to an inadequate decision?”

This process of acknowledging limits and taking steps to move past them is a celebrated part of the culture at Bridgewater. They’ve taken the priority away from “how good are you at your job?” and replaced it with “how fast are you learning?”

And they’ve created a culture that tells people, while they may be incomplete, they’re still valuable. And people cease being a means to an end, but as an investment in the company’s long-term success.

In a 2012 Harvard Business School commencement speech, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg discussed the importance of creating an environment conducive to honest feedback. “When you’re the leader, it is really hard to get good and honest feedback, no matter how many times you ask for it. One trick I’ve discovered is that I try to speak really openly about the things I’m bad at, because that gives people permission to agree with me, which is a lot easier than pointing it out in the first place.”

Sandberg recognized that when she broadcast her own weaknesses, she created an environment where people felt more comfortable to give her feedback. But this practice also encourages others to reciprocate. To share their own weaknesses and seek feedback. And openly work on improving these areas.

In these environments, acknowledging weaknesses is a sign of self-awareness. And actively working to improve them is an indication of strength.

Most people are good at laying out future quantitative targets. Numbers to hit or metrics to satisfy. And while these are important, we should also encourage people to create qualitative goals as well.

What behaviors do we want to better develop? What personal skills should we invest in over the coming year? How do we want to improve our overall effectiveness?

We do need to hit our numbers and perform our jobs. But it’s our qualitative goals that will stimulate long-term development. And if we don’t encourage people to openly share and work on them, they’ll continue to stay hidden. And limit our overall growth.

Forget About Pleasing Everyone. Authenticity Brings Connection.

“Really, Hagrid, if you are holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

If we show people our whole selves, they may see something they disagree with. And now we have one less follower. Or one less customer. Or maybe one hundred less. Or one thousand.

But the world is a very big place. And people are looking to make genuine connections.

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers tells how he excluded record labels from selling at CD Baby. He focused on independent musicians and gave them a unique place to get the exposure they deserve. He excluded the vast majority of the record industry, but gained die-hard loyalty from a select minority.

Seth Godin developed the concept of a purple cow to demonstrate that in today’s world of constant distraction, we need a remarkable product if we want to stand out from all of the other boring, generic stuff.

If I saw a purple cow, I’d probably tell you about it. I see lots of brown cows. My son likes to point them out as we drive by, but other than that, they’re not too special.

I don’t need to tell you about brown cows. And if I tried, you wouldn’t be interested. Because a purple cow is worth talking about and a brown cow isn’t.

When we strive for universal acceptance, we become that brown cow. We genericize ourselves in the hopes of not offending others. Of fitting in with everyone. And we make ourselves less remarkable. And not worth noticing.

And there’s probably a lot of people who wouldn’t like purple cows. Who’d feel threatened by one and couldn’t understand how this purple cow fits in with their vision of how the world should work.

And that’s fine, because others will appreciate it. And it’ll make their day. And they’ll talk about it.

I suppose the real question is, do we want to be universally non-objectionable? Or do we want to be remarkable, if only to a much smaller percentage? Brown cow or purple cow?

We only get to remarkable if we don’t worry about pleasing everyone and focus on really connecting with those that matter to us.

Encourage Authenticity. It Brings Acceptance.

“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.”
- Shel Silverstein, Every Thing On It

Every day after work, I come home and I’m greeted by a seven and a four year old who want to play with their dad. They want nothing more than to play chase, or LEGOs, or just tell me about all of the exciting things that happened to them today.

In that environment, I am the best version of myself. I’m open, and comfortable, and whole. And it’s in that environment that I’m proudest of who I am.

I’m not saying we ever will or should have this level of openness at work. But each step we can take towards creating a more authentic environment, and we’ll gain some of the benefits that come with it.

There will always be pressure to conform to everyone else’s expectations. And in some situations that’s important. But when we push consistency for the sake of consistency we get conformity. And every step towards conformity is a step away from diversity. It’s a step away from innovation. And a step away from connection.

Let’s make sure we’re encouraging authenticity where we can. The benefits are just too important to ignore.

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