Authentic Leadership: How to Build Genuine Relationships With Your Team
One of the most powerful leadership skills in the modern workplace is the ability to enact change. Leaders create change when they push their employees to do better and build a healthy workplace culture around them. While some managers create change through force, others use advocacy. They win people over and guide them through their plans.
If you want to be an advocate in your office, you need authenticity. Authenticity allows you to build your support system and get everyone on the same page to achieve the company’s goals. Let’s explore the concept of authenticity and why it is essential in the modern workplace.
Authenticity Builds Psychological Safety
Authenticity lets people to put their guards down and express themselves naturally. It is essential for both managers and employees. Authentic leaders create a sense of psychological safety and confidence in employees.
Executive coach Laura Delizonna, Ph.D. points to a Google study on the importance of psychological safety in the workplace — the belief that you won’t be punished for taking a risk or making a mistake.
“The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat,” she writes. “The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers.”
Essentially, our ability to think analytically disappears and is replaced with a “deer in the headlights” panic mode. Without psychological safety, employees may not take the moderate risks necessary for high performance and can’t have healthy workplace reactions to the people around them.
To increase psychological safety in the workplace, Angus Ridgway, cofounder of leadership development company Potentialife, lists actions managers can take in order to connect with their employees and make them feel more confident:
Be more available to your employees.
Share your mistakes and what you learned from them.
Encourage team members to ask for help and guidance.
Reward teams that report errors rather than those who ignore them.
While we tend to focus on being authentic about our failures (because people often try to hide them out of insecurity), it’s also important to our psychological safety to discuss successes. “It’s...authentic to own your success,” Lindsey Pollak, multigenerational workplace expert, writes. “No one is fooled by a humblebrag, and I think it’s important to share the stories of why you’re successful.”
There is significant overlap between being authentic and developing psychological safety practices. Both elements work together to build up employees.
Workplace Structure Often Determines Authenticity
Today’s management best practices are paving the way for better communication and increased authenticity.
“It’s natural that an organisational culture that encourages learning, development, recognition and respect is more likely to have employees who can be their authentic selves in work,” says Sandra Henke at Hays Recruitment. “A culture that has stuck to a rigid way of working for some time – with no transparent, clear progression routes or with unapproachable management – lends itself to employees who will feel they can’t discuss their issues or problems.”
A single person can’t change an entire company by being more authentic, but whole teams and departments can work together to build authenticity and encourage better communication.
Leadership coach Kathy Caprino has been there as an authentic person in a toxic work culture. She spent more than 18 years in the corporate world and struggled to be herself. She saw things that she wished she stood up for and tried to address problems but got shot down. As a result, she began to hide from the destructive bosses and toxic coworkers around her, and adapted her personality to survive in that environment.
In order to increase employee engagement, the workplace must be authentic. In an article for Conscious Company, Nina Bernardin and Rachel Zurer explain that when team members can’t be themselves, they don’t speak up. They don’t share their ideas or bring up concerns they have with a project. When employees don’t feel like their opinions are valued, they check out, and don’t care if the company succeeds or fails.
If you want authentic employees and managers, look at your office structure first.
Authenticity and Emotional Intelligence Work Together
The thing about authenticity is that you can’t fake it and you can’t force it. Authenticity often comes naturally to those with high emotional intelligence and self-awareness.
“A common tendency of people in management roles is to put on a mask that hides who they truly are...how they forcefully command attention with a false charisma,” executive coach Marcel Schwantes writes. “An emotionally-intelligent leader displaying the strength of authenticity shows up with her best self.”
Leadership coach Christopher D. Connors uses the example of his first boss in management consulting as what true authenticity look like. Connors admired his humility, honesty and authenticity — which were not false or put on somehow — these traits came from within. The man was introspective and consciously thought about how his actions affected others.
Your employees can see through false charisma. They know the difference between someone who cares and listens versus someone who wants you to think they’re listening.
Anett Grant, leadership speaking coach, says there are four habits that people use to seem more authentic that are actually off-putting. You might give off fake authenticity if:
You smile too often, which can actually become unnerving to many.
You make poorly-timed gestures which makes it seem like your interactions are pre-planned.
You pause erratically as you talk, which disrupts the flow of the conversation and makes it seem less natural.
Your facial expressions don’t match your words, which sends mixed messages.
These habits can actually drive people away from you because it looks like you’re putting up a facade in your attempts to seem comfortable and authentic around your peers.
Authenticity Takes Time
It takes time to build up authenticity within your team members. Even employees who should feel comfortable in the workplace likely have at least some type of wall up throughout the day.
Employees take time to show their true selves, social psychologist Vanessa Buote writes. In a study she headed for Plasticity Labs, she found:
72 percent of respondents said they take two to three months to show their true selves in the office.
22 percent felt authentic in the workplace by the nine-month mark.
Nine percent said it took more than 10 months to feel like they could be their authentic selves at work.
Despite the differences in timing, 80 percent of employees who are authentic believe authenticity improves the workplace.
In the same way that people don’t drop their guard as soon as they start a new job, building authentic relationships with others also takes time, career coach Caitlin Magidson explains. She uses the relationship with one of her coworkers as an example. Over the past four years that they’ve worked together, they’ve shared vacation stories, supported each other through difficult family times, and given each other podcast tips. It wasn’t immediate, but they now know they can trust each other. Managers who want an authentic workplace can’t expect to create one tomorrow.
You Choose Whether or Not Your Network is Authentic
If you struggle to find authentic people in the workplace, either in your peers or employees, then you may be working with the wrong people.
Tim Denning, personal development blogger, says people are affected by their network. When you are authentic, you attract other authentic people. Just because you don’t see authenticity within the people you spend time with at work doesn’t mean it isn’t found within your workplace.
“It is very difficult to achieve career success in a vacuum; we all need people in our corner helping us to expand our reach and cheering us on,” writes Shaifali Aggarwal, founder of MBA admissions consulting company, Ivy Groupe. “This is only truly possible by forming genuine relationships – after all, why will someone be inspired to help you, and you to help someone else, based upon a superficial relationship?”
Without this authenticity, it’s easy to come off as someone who doesn’t really care or won’t return the favor and help others when the time comes. People create barriers when they are approached by inauthentic employees and are wary of working with them.
There Are Downsides to Being Too Authentic
Interestingly, there are some drawbacks to being too authentic. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant explains that authenticity encourages some people to stay in their comfort zones and try less than they otherwise would.
Instead of applying a “fake it until you make it” mentality, where employees push themselves to do better, they take on a “that’s not something I can do” mentality. Whether they openly don’t want to do something or don’t want to try, too much authenticity can lead to employees pushing back on their managers.
You also can’t use the concept of authenticity to be a bad person. Sally Percy, editor of Edge magazine for the Institute of Leadership & Management in the UK, says you can’t use authenticity to be “abrupt, irritable or over-emotional.”
Again, this is where emotional intelligence comes in. You’re unable to empower others to be themselves and make them feel safe if you can’t control your own behavior. There’s a fine line between showing emotion in a healthy manner and creating an uncomfortable work environment.
When you are genuinely authentic, and everyone around you reciprocates this care and respect, you can motivate your team to move forward. You can push them to work harder during rough patches and encourage them to make changes to improve the business. You become an effective advocate and a strong leader.