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Healthy Authenticity: Keeping it Real While Practicing Discernment

[January 19, 2023] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas



Authenticity is the quality of being genuine and truthful, playing it straight. It is one of the attributes that builds trust in relationships as we acknowledge where and who we are.


We often hear how important it is to live and lead with “authenticity,” sharing our real self with those around us. In fact, this term is surfacing in just about every leadership meeting you have or will attend. And for some it’s even appearing in their annual review.


So here are a few questions you might be pondering: What does it mean to be authentic in our personal and professional lives? Is there such a thing as being too open (Hint: yes)? How much sharing and relating is healthy?


What Authentic Leadership is Not


Authentic leadership is not uncontrolled expression of our inner selves -- our inner thoughts and feelings. Unfettered expression can be a very destructive force once shared, that cannot be taken back, even if and when our thoughts and opinions change. Case in point on a personal level. Have you ever shared your authentic negative thoughts about a friend of a family member only to realize that they would eventually become your new in-law? And to compound the situation, you realize that your initial and harsh opinion had actually evolved to a more positive one. But the damage had been done. Ugh! Sometimes less is best.


This happens in the workplace as well. We share our genuine and negative thoughts about a new employee and sabotage their success before they have a chance to learn and mature in their role. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of this harmful behavior and know how painful that can be. Sometimes it’s best to reserve judgment.


And there are times we sabotage ourselves as well. This can occur when we are too rigid, and when we give ourselves away. When we make statements such as “this is who I am,” “this is how I think,” “this is what I do,” we back ourselves into a rigid corner, not giving ourselves room to learn, adapt, and grow. Basically, we close a door. And we also can sabotage ourselves when we perform for others, ignoring our own values and beliefs, to gain notice or benefits (this can be exhausting). We lose our identity as an individual and become known as the “ingratiator.” Sometimes it’s best to be reflective and consider our core values before responding.


Let’s not allow the forces of the contemporary age to wash away the boundaries of our personal and professional selves, or pressure us into performing untethered from our belief system.


Healthy Authentic Leadership Starts with our Beliefs


Authentic and healthy living and leading is when our words and actions are consistent with our core values and beliefs, on stage and off, day in and day out. It is important, therefore, to dig deep and be aware of those firmly held convictions in our life – those things that we accept as true, right, and moral. These beliefs are grounded in our origins, our personal history, and they evolve from there.


Healthy authenticity includes the ability to strike a balance between what we keep to ourselves and what we give away. This requires having personal and social awareness, knowing our audience, and discerning what to reveal to whom and when while remaining true to our core beliefs. Much easier said than done!


We sabotage our authenticity, and therefore our trustworthiness, when we say one thing and act another. When we talk about the need to speak up and don’t, or when we talk about the importance of hearing diverse points of view, but shut down the conversation of dissenters, we damage our credibility. People are watching, listening and learning – and in this instance the learning is not so good.


This pertains to other aspects of our life as well. We each have multiple roles in life, such as leader, parent, friend, teacher, and spouse. And in these multiple roles, we continuously share parts of ourselves, but in different ways – we use different words, wear different uniforms, and share different stories. We draw on personal narratives that fit the context and the circumstances we are in, with the goal of relating to the individual or audience. Our authenticity is judged by the consistency of our actions and words within the guardrails of our core beliefs.


So here are a few tips to help us lead with authenticity and discernment in the workplace:


  • Build your self-knowledge, reflecting on your values and beliefs and how they are demonstrated by your real self, as compared to your best self. Consider the implications of the gap.

  • Before sharing the highly personal, remember that your goal is to build trust and promote collaboration with the team, not make a new friend.

  • Keep your sharing real. Don’t exaggerate or make up stories to fit the occasion.

  • Understand the organizational and cultural norms, paying attention to how others disclose personal information. Observe the responses generated and discern whether they are trust building or trust busting.

  • Voluntarily share some of your weaknesses, not just your strengths. Call on others with strengths in those areas to provide their input and expertise to support the work of the team.

Leading with healthy authenticity to promote trust and collaboration in the workplace is a worthwhile goal. It takes some courage (sometimes a lot of courage), with a heavy dose of self-awareness, and a bit of restraint, combined with alignment of your words and deeds to those values that are important to you.


Titter Time:


“I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I’m also deaf in one ear.” ~Author unknown

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