Here's how to nail authenticity in the workplace
A view from Rob Davis

Here's how to nail authenticity in the workplace

The Starcom president recognizes the irony in his advice, having worked in an industry that once put glue in bowls of cereal to make milk look creamier.

"Authenticity is the most important thing. Once you learn to fake that, you’re set."

The origin of the above quote is a bit hazy, attributed to comedians like Groucho Marx or journalists like Daniel Schorr. But regardless of originator, it reliably elicits a chuckle. Why? Because people of all walks of life regularly experience a conspicuous lack of authenticity, be it in their personal lives or business dealings. We inherently know that true authenticity and honesty is rare. It’s elusive. It’s hard.

But it really doesn’t need to be. And it’s no longer really optional in the workplace.

A growing Millennial—and post-Millennial—workforce no longer accept authority unquestioningly. They expect straight shooting, clearly outlined expectations and the ability to be their true selves. Internal surveys from my company have found that the greater employees’ feelings of authenticity are, the greater their job satisfaction, engagement and self-reported performance.

So, how do we ensure that we act authentically and our employees do as well? We’ve all been conditioned, even if subconsciously, to wear our workplace personas, our "work face." We innately, and desperately, want to fit in, to soften bad news, to find paths of least resistance. So, paradoxically, it takes some concerted effort to be authentic at work. Here are a few tips:

Lead by example
It has to start at the top. The first step in institutionalizing authenticity is to make sure your leaders exhibit it regularly. As a leader, start by admitting your mistakes (gasp!). Be human. Also, have self-awareness about your style and discuss it openly. Try to abolish any form of secrecy, which only breeds mistrust. Authentic leaders are human and fallible, know who they are, and have nothing to hide.

State clear intentions
This seems on the surface like a blinding flash of the obvious, but I’d posit that stating clear intentions in the workplace is actually quite rare. Managers are rarely asked, and even more rarely offer, the real why of an assignment. Why do I have to do this report? Why are we working late? Hopefully, the answers most of the time are "because it will drive the client’s business forward," but the reality is sometimes different. And offering that rationale honestly can be uncomfortable.

But, as long as it’s ethical, people appreciate the directness of intention. Try something like, "This report may feel tedious and time consuming, but the client uses it differently than the way we think about it so we need to ensure we deliver." Or, "Because this time, with this person, style is more important than substance so we need to take the time to make it look nice." They may not love it, but in my experience, people appreciate the authentic statements of intention, and rally behind them.

Acknowledge and embrace differences
This is not to say we are all a special snowflake, but we do each bring unique approaches, styles and ways of thinking. Corporate culture is hugely important, but we don’t want to iron out all the healthy wrinkles that build our collective character. I had a boss once tell me I needed to be more aggressive. I countered, "I think we have enough aggressive people around here. I can certainly be more assertive, but I would not be authentic if I tried to be a hard-ass." She agreed and I still got a good performance review (phew!). Companies in which authenticity thrives embrace differences and help people rise because of—not despite—them.

Measure and cultivate authenticity and trust
I’m not suggesting we hook people up to polygraphs, but we are in a business that purports to be about measurement and accountability, so we should apply the same standards to the authenticity and trust our talent expects. At our agency, for example, we conduct an annual (anonymous) employee engagement survey, and have questions like, "I trust senior leadership" and "I feel as if my manager communicates directly and honestly." We also have ongoing training sessions including leadership coaching workshops that help address and cultivate a culture of authenticity to help people deal with personal setbacks in very real ways. Authentic companies have mechanisms to both measure and develop authentic skills.

I recognize the potential irony of an advertising executive—from the industry that once put glue in bowls of cereal to make milk look creamier—waxing poetic about the virtues of authenticity. But employees in the advertising industry, just like any other, are ultimately human beings. They crave authenticity and can smell it’s inverse a mile away. People who are authentic and feel the same of their leaders and peers are quite simply more satisfied, engaged and productive.

Authenticity is arguably the most important thing. It’s not always as easy as it seems it should be, but if we all practice these principles, we will be set—without even having to fake it.

Rob Davis is a president at Starcom Worldwide in Chicago.