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Is it possible to be too authentic?
In the last two blog posts and podcasts, we’ve talked about the importance of authenticity, the importance of being real. Authenticity has become another popular buzzword in today’s business world and even in society in general. The idea of being authentic in relationships, both business and personal, is certainly valid, but is it possible to go too far with authenticity? Consider this scenario: Dylan is a new help desk technician in his company. He’s very bright and has lots of experience with computers, but he’s just learning some of the systems in use at his work. In a tech support call, an end user asks him about a software package with which he’s unfamiliar. He responds, “I’m new here and don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.” Is Dylan being authentic? Sure. Is he being honest? You bet. Is he handling the situation in an appropriate manner? No. The problem is that, although Dylan’s being honest, his response doesn’t help build a sense of confidence in his department, nor even in Dylan himself. A better response might be to say, “I need to do some research on that to ensure I’m giving you the correct answer.” If it’s a phone call, you might even say, “I’m sorry, may I put you on hold for just a moment?” and then quickly find a more experienced colleague to help. Under no circumstances do we want to be dishonest or misleading and it goes without saying that we want to be as helpful as possible. The reality is there will be times when we don’t know the answer, even to simple questions, and our finesse in handling such situations is a reflection of our poise and professionalism.
What about this scenario? Katy went to a party the night before and has a hangover this morning. She came to work in spite of not feeling well. When people at work ask her how she’s feeling, she says, “Oh, I got so drunk last night and I feel terrible this morning.” Is Katy being authentic? Yes. Is she being honest? Sure. Is her response appropriate? No, because she’s giving way too much information unnecessarily, some of which may reflect poorly on her professional reputation. A better response would be, “I’m not feeling well right now, but I don’t feel bad enough to stay home, I’m not contagious, and I’m pretty sure I’ll feel better pretty soon. Thanks for asking.” I’m not condoning drinking, especially to excess. I do, however, realize that it happens and our choices in how we handle such situations can have an impact on our jobs and careers.
When I first began my career, I wanted to be true to myself, which is always a good practice. I confused, however, being true to myself with talking and acting the same way at work that I did around my friends. Thoughtful people modify their behavior, language, and clothing choices based on the situation and environment. It’s just not smart to call your 55-year-old boss “Dude” or “Bro”, nor is it smart to dress the same way in a conservative law office that you would for hanging out with your friends on a weekend or vice versa. It’s not a matter of being inauthentic, it’s a matter of showing cultural awareness and sensitivity to your environment.
One final scenario: Allie has just been named the help desk supervisor. At her first meeting, she says, in a attempt to be seen as honest and up front, “I know I’m new and have lots to learn about this job. Frankly, I’m pretty nervous, even a little scared, so I need everyone’s help and support to make sure our department is successful.” Is Allie being authentic? Yes, of course. The problem is she’s revealing a little too much and risks undermining her staff’s confidence. A better thing to say would have been, “I’m very excited about this job. Sure, I’ve got a lot to learn, as most of us do, and I’m confident that, working together, we’ll be a highly successful department.”
In each of the above scenarios, the people involved placed great importance on being honest. The problem is they went too far with the honesty and, in the process, made bad choices that reflect poorly on them and may adversely affect their jobs and careers. Authenticity is great when combined with discretion and good judgement.
Authenticity is about being honest and up front with the people around you. Discretion is about not disclosing unnecessary information and choosing your words wisely, ensuring that what you say is appropriate for the workplace.
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