All the World’s a Stage

There seem to be a lot of HR related blogs on authenticity at the moment. The concept of “bringing your true self to work” has gained a lot of traction for what are very understandable reasons. If we are looking to improve productivity and get the best from committed and motivated employees, then we need to counter the “reverse superman” effect (a phrase coined by Organisational Development specialist Ali Germain) where people who are talented, capable and innovative in their non-work lives suddenly turn into lifeless corporate drones as soon as they clock in. And creating more human, people centred workplaces may well be the way to attract people to work for our businesses in future.
However, I’m not convinced we actually want real authenticity. Let me give you two examples.
Many years ago, I worked with a senior manager whose life was dominated by his hobby of yachting. His office was full of yachting memorabilia, including a sailing cap he always kept on his desk. People used to hate being summoned to his office because, after 5 minutes of business, they would be subjected to interminable (and to non-sailing types, i.e. most staff) tedious anecdotes about his yacht, sailing generally or his days in the navy. He was being totally “authentic” but the real him was a dreadful bore.
More recently, I had to deal with a disciplinary situation where an employee was constantly rude and aggressive to colleagues, but never in front of her manager. Following a particular incident, she was suspended and ultimately dismissed. During the investigation, many people commented that it was good that management had now seen her true colours. In her hearing, she argued that she had done nothing that wasn’t warranted and that she had always been like that – even using the phrase “what you see is what you get”.
But even if we want to get the “real person” in work I very much doubt we will. There have been numerous psychological studies about how people modify their behaviour in different environments – as Shakespeare put it “one man in his time plays many parts”. It’s one of the HR clichés that you don’t have to be friends the people you work with – and if you aren’t, you probably won’t be comfortable with showing your real feelings or personality in the working environment – no matter how much you like your organisation, job or get on with colleagues at a superficial or professional level.
When we talk about authenticity in HR, what I suspect we really mean is that we’d quite like people to show some of the nicer aspects of their personality in work, maybe with the odd idiosyncrasy thrown in, not their misogynistic or racist views or even their tendency to drone on about their yachting exploits at the weekend.

One thought on “All the World’s a Stage

  1. Nice piece Simon – I suspect what we want is people to show their ‘best’ work self so not put on an act or be phony but to be true to some aspect of their sense of self that is constructive and appropriate to the context. For this to happen the individual needs a reasonable degree of self awareness including how they are/may be perceived by others and a conscious connection with who they think they are. Becoming aware of personal priority values is one way to do this (I would say that wouldn’t I). My experience of working with individual and groups is that when we really get what matters most to us as a unique human being we can better focus our energy and personal portrayal into those values which are the most generous, most creative, most resilient aspects of our authentic self – that’s what others want from us in work and life.

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