Leadership Development Essentials: The Importance of Authenticity and Professionalism

March 7, 2024 Rachel Halversen

For today’s leaders, an increasingly critical responsibility and key area of leadership development is creating an authentic organizational culture where employees can feel at ease not only being themselves, but voicing their thoughts, opinions, and concerns candidly. Why? Because cultivating an environment built on trust, communication, and teamwork enables your employees’ motivation, productivity, and professionalism to thrive.

In this post, we’ll explore what professional authenticity means, why it’s important to be authentic professionally, how to foster an authentic professional environment, how to develop authenticity and professionalism within yourself, and how to prioritize those traits as a leader.  

What do authenticity and professionalism have to do with each other?

Generally speaking, when one feels comfortable being themselves—being authentic—at work, studies show increased life satisfaction and well-being, which provides a launch pad for a professional to flourish. Not only that, but authenticity at work yields better motivation and performance. It can be tough when you feel comfortable being yourself everywhere but work, or if you feel like being yourself will bring about judgement or some sort of reprimand. Of course, authenticity manifests differently depending on where you are and who you’re with, but while at work, remind yourself that you belong in the room (or in the meeting) and you have something to offer.

If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing or saying too much, try setting boundaries and practicing active listening. Consider the following, “Your boundaries are based on your unique needs and wants. They are rules, created by you, that indicate what you will accept and what you will not, including how you want to be treated by others and show up at work. What and how much you feel comfortable sharing varies from person to person.” Author Lan Nguyen Chaplin, professor of marketing at Northwestern, continues, “When you listen deeply, you allow yourself to be silent. Silence allows you to declutter your thought process, be present, reflect, and make an honest contribution to whatever is being discussed.”

How to create and maintain a professional environment rooted in authenticity

Unsurprisingly, finding comfort at work is a marathon, not a sprint. While 72% of people say they are authentic at work, it can take a while to reach that state. While the majority begin to feel comfortable being authentic within two to three months, others may take up to a year to show their true selves. But corporate culture starts at the top, and creating an authentic, candid professional environment can speed up this process and make it significantly easier for everyone to operate with authenticity. Here are five ways to encourage authenticity at work as a business leader:

  1. Spend time really getting to know your colleagues.
  2. Show your team it’s ok to make mistakes.
  3. Build diverse teams.
  4. Be courageous—don’t shy away from difficult conversations.
  5. Recognize that authenticity looks different for everyone.

While communication is key, patience is essential. Everyone has their own experiences, boundaries, preferences, and priorities, so if someone isn’t ready or willing to share something or participate in a particular way, it’s important to give them space. If your company culture is rooted with the right intentions and beliefs, closed-off colleagues will eventually come around.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are especially critical here. DE&I should feel like a company value rather than simply a program. If that’s not the case, leadership should be held accountable and make a genuine effort to improve. According to one expert in a recent Forbes article, “If leaders need to understand the delicacies of race and ethnicity, employ an expert who has lived that experience. If leaders need to understand gender issues, hire an expert who has lived that experience. If leaders need to understand the issues of workplace age bias, employ an expert who has lived that experience.”

The individual approach to developing authenticity and professionalism 

Despite some arguing that authenticity and professionalism are at odds with one another, it’s really all about balance. Wendy Barclay, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at England Logistics outlined a few tips for finding that balance:

  • Be clear on your values and priorities.
  • Be respectful of others’ expectations.
  • Communicate openly and honestly.
  • Embrace your quirks and individuality.

Additionally, authors at HBR outlined common mistakes and pitfalls leaders make when trying to be more authentic and provided a five step plan to guide you toward more effective self-disclosure:

  1. Build a foundation of self-knowledge. The best approach is to solicit honest feedback from coworkers and follow it up with coaching.
  2. Consider relevance to the task. Before sharing personal information, ask yourself if it’s germane to the situation.
  3. Keep revelations genuine. Making up or exaggerating stories is easily discovered and can damage credibility.
  4. Understand the organizational and cultural context. Some societies are more inclined than others to disclose personal information.
  5. Delay or avoid very personal disclosures. First take note of how open others are.

Now that you’ve learned about authenticity and professionalism and are able to identify your own strengths and weaknesses in that regard, you’ll be able to identify strengths and weaknesses within your team, department, and organization. Once you’ve put these recommendations into practice, you’ll be better equipped to enable others to do the same, effectively starting an authentic company culture transformation from the inside out.

Lean in to the leadership qualities shaping the modern workforce.

Authenticity isn’t the latest buzzword. It’s not a trend or a fad, it’s a pivotal piece in the future of work. It’s not a box to check, either. The authenticity journey is ongoing; it will evolve year by year, job by job, and team by team. Remember to take a step back and enjoy the ride, let the goal to be yourself at work be a guiding force that propels you toward endless success.

If you’re looking to move on pressing priorities and your top to-dos, loop in Business Talent Group and our network of independent experts and get started today.

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