Authenticity at work doesn’t look the same for everyone

Written by: Isabel Berwick, Sophia Smith
Published on: 24 Jan 2023
Category:

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I lost my voice last week, which threw the Working It podcast schedule into disarray and confined me to bed. I’d been working hard and dealing with some family issues, and the sudden collapse was a reminder of the mind-body link that too many (including me, apparently) ignore, especially when we have deadlines and targets that can’t wait.

Except, they can wait. The podcasts have been rescheduled and the time in bed gave me headspace to search out fresh perspectives on work and life. (Hello, Reddit, where my diverse interests — management, tattoos and cold water swimming — all have their own groups.)

We recently recorded an episode of the podcast about Long Covid at work, with Jana Javornik, an associate professor of employment relations at the University of Leeds, who has the condition. Jana stresses how big a part managers play in helping their staff to recover. As she told me, employers could prioritise rest and time off by “relieving pressure on affected individuals by offering opportunities to reduce workload”.

Sickness and burnout together are huge issues. A McKinsey Health Institute report questioned 15,000 employees and 1,000 senior HR staff in 15 countries and found that one in four employees reported experiencing burnout symptoms. As the report drily notes, “As an employer, you can’t ‘yoga’ your way out of these challenges.”

I’m interested in hearing from you. How do you effectively handle sickness and burnout in your teams? And tell us about your experiences of being sick or stressed at work over long periods of time. How did your bosses react? Let us know in the comments below or email us at workingit@ft.com.

PS FT science commentator Anjana Ahuja recently wrote a great introduction to the link between psychological trauma and physical illness(Isabel Berwick)

What is authenticity anyway?

authenticity at work
© FT montage / Unsplash / Dreamstime

In the summer of 2020, Mimi Gonzalez was organising Black Lives Matter protests while working at Stanley Black & Decker and participating in the company’s leadership development programme. Although she says she was “terrified” that her vocal activism might cost her the job, she kept it up in order to live out her values.

Her fears were soon assuaged. Ahead of a Stanley Black & Decker panel that Mimi led on the intersections between racial justice, health, and the LGBT community, the company’s then-CEO James Loree commended her community activism, adding that he could not have chosen a better person to represent the company. In validating her work, Loree created a supportive environment that allowed Mimi to show up at work as her authentic self, she said.

In July of this year, Donald Allan, Jr. replaced Loree as CEO, and his cost-cutting measures affected the racial equity programmes Mimi had worked on over the past two years. No longer feeling like the environment matched her own values, Mimi announced her resignation. Stanley Black & Decker says that their “commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion has not changed” and that it “remains a priority for [their] company and workforce”.

It’s tricky to pin down an exact definition of professional authenticity. As Mimi’s experience shows, how each person presents themselves at work depends so heavily on their identity and where they sit within an organisation.

For early-career workers, professional authenticity is largely a matter of finding an organisation that aligns with your values. Lindsey Pollak, a New York Times bestselling author and speaker on work and career advice, says that one common question she often gets is whether someone who is very active in a partisan cause should publicise it in their professional life, such as including it on LinkedIn.

“Could you work in an environment where that’s not OK?” she asks. “If the answer is no, then you should include it.” Lindsey advises those early in their career to step back from the job hunt and first ensure that a company is truly a genuine fit.

For managers and leaders who are more settled in their careers, authenticity can have a different focus — it’s all about embracing imperfection. Rachel Pacheco, professor of management at Georgetown University and author of Bringing Up the Boss: Practical Lessons for New Managers, says that new managers in particular are prone to imposter syndrome, which can make them hesitant to be vulnerable or show weakness. While writing her book College to Career, Lindsey realised that pretending she’d done everything right in her career wouldn’t be helpful to readers, so she revised her manuscript to include reflections on the mistakes she’d made. “People learn more when they hear the good and the bad, and talking about overcoming [mistakes] is what’s actually valuable.”

Lindsey believes that how much of your private life you bring to work is about personal choice. And while everyone should be able to define “professional authenticity” for themselves, the reality is that it can be much more difficult for people of colour and other under-represented groups. “We have to be careful that we don’t judge other people by a white, male standard”, says Lindsey.

The good news is that our concept of what it means to act professionally is “widening”, says Lindsey. “People can be professional in many different ways, and it doesn’t have to look like a certain type of person.” She adds that one “red herring” that people presume when it comes to authenticity is that everyone already knows exactly who they are. “It takes experimentation. It’s OK if you’re not sure and you’re still figuring it out.” (Sophia Smith)

Are you able to truly be yourself at work, or do you have to act in a way that’s not “you”? Let us know in this week's poll.

Listen in: The woes of maligned middle managers

This week on the Working It podcast, it’s time for the unsung middle manager to shine. Many of us have these roles, but team leaders (as we ought to rebrand ourselves) have often been maligned.

When cost-cutting measures are implemented, the middle manager may be seen as a dispensable bureaucrat. That’s an error; as the FT’s senior business writer Andrew Hill tells me, the manager is a vital link between senior management and the workforce. We discuss all the different roles managers are expected to play: therapist, mentor, enforcer and so on. It’s a lot, so we also discuss how managers can set boundaries. For further reading, I highly recommend Andrew’s column on why being a manager matters more than ever.

Next week, my FT colleague Jemima Kelly and I have some Halloween fun, covering all things spiritual and alternative at work. Listen in for our tarot reading and a look at modern witchcraft.

Elsewhere in the world of work:

  1. The world needs more ‘desk-bombers’: Is the practice of approaching someone at their desk to ask a spontaneous question so offensive that it requires a whole new buzzword? Probably not, writes Pilita Clark, who sees this as part of a pattern of shyness and intolerance for interruption.

  2. No, procrastinating will not boost creativity: Procrastination is often assumed to be an integral part of the creative process, but inactive downtime that precedes a period of creation is distinctly different from the self-sabotage that defines true procrastination, writes Jemima Kelly.

  3. Reimagining the workplace: Most offices do not yet allow for the flexibility people enjoy at home, but could be made more inviting with the inclusion of different “realms” of white collar work.

  4. How to survive and thrive on an executive MBA: Many EMBA students juggle their coursework alongside demanding senior executive jobs. Read on for advice from alumni on balancing jobs, life and study as you earn your degree.

  5. The legal industry aims for better inclusion: Lawyers say the culture at some top law firms — where they’ve been mocked for wearing the wrong shoes or attending a state school — is holding back efforts to make the profession more diverse.

A word from the Working It community:

We are fascinated by corporate leadership, but there are downsides to putting managers on mountaintops, writes Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. Our obsession with high-profile leaders risks creating cult-like figures unchecked by meaningful governance.

Reader abm points out that great leaders are those who make sure an organisation can thrive — no matter who is at the helm:

"A great leader is one who makes themselves dispensable by shaping their organisation to be better at running itself, and by hiring great managers below them. The best test of a leader is how well the organisation they led fares in the years after they’ve left."

Reader Doutora shares some research that provides an explanation for the rise of business leaders as cult figures:

"There’s a compelling theory that new economic models have dismantled the mechanisms that produced personal accountability in CEOs. Add to this some fascinating new research that those most interested in leadership theories are narcissists. Together this paints a grim portrait of modern CEOs."

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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