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Authenticity Matters… but Openness and Honesty Matters More

In time, what I most dreaded happened: An employee sat down in my office and said, “Is the company talking about layoffs? I’m really worried. I can’t afford to lose my job.”

We had been talking about layoffs – and people like me, a department manager, had been told not to say a word about it.

I felt I had built a solid rapport with employees. I always gave candid feedback. I always answered their questions. But now I was stuck: How could I respond without breaking confidentiality… yet also without breaking the sense of trust I felt I had built?

Saying, “No, we haven’t,” would have been untrue. Saying, “That’s not something I’m in a position to discuss,” would have been like saying, “Yes.”

Yep: Stuck.

What did I do?

I mumbled something about challenging market conditions and poor financial results and how every business should constantly re-evaluate its operations.

And I vowed that if I was ever completely in charge, I would never put myself – and more importantly, the people who worked with me – in the same position.

Authenticity is Good

Margaret Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

The same is true for authentic leadership. Authenticity isn’t something you claim; authenticity is a quality that can only be attributed to you by others.

Which is a good thing, because it means, by your words and actions, that you can control how others perceive you.

So yes: Authenticity matters. Employees — as well as customers, and vendors, and suppliers, and everyone around you — can immediately spot out the slightest difference between your words (and your company’s mission statement) and your actions.

But at the same time, as Adam Grant points out, “No one wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.”

That includes your team. While authenticity matters, being totally “yourself” can serve to inhibit the effectiveness of the people you lead.

Self-Monitoring is Better

Self-monitoring is a personality trait that reflects an individual’s ability to modify behavior in response to different norms, situations, and opportunities. If you’re a high self-monitor, you often adapt your words and actions to the situation. If you’re a low self-monitor, you’re more likely to disregard the circumstances and behave according to your beliefs and feelings.

In short, low self-monitors focus on what goes on inside them, rather than around. Think, oh, Steve Jobs.

In spite of that example, people who regularly scan the people around them and adjust their behavior accordingly tend to advance in their careers more rapidly and achieve higher status among their peers than more “authentic” low self-monitors. (One meta-analysis of 136 studies showed that high self-monitors tended to receive better performance evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.)

All of which, success aside, could make high self-monitors seem less authentic. Less real. Less “themselves.”

But because they constantly scan their environment, high self-monitors tend to be much more in tune with the needs of others. They more readily notice social cues that signal approval and disapproval, excitement and disappointment, satisfaction and frustration. Research shows high self-monitors are more likely to learn from and embrace the traits and habits of the people around them, which over time makes them more effective leaders.

And over time, they learn to embrace those traits and habits – even if, early on, some of those traits or habits weren’t “authentic” to their personality.

Honesty and Openness is Better

Authentic leaders are true to themselves.

But that doesn’t mean they’re great leaders.

The best leaders, as long as their values and ethics are not compromised, are true to their employees.

“Authentic you” might bristle when employees occasionally gossip. “Effective leader you” takes into account how well your team performs, and how for some a little harmless chit-chat can provide a needed tension release.

“Authentic you” might completely disagree with an employee’s political beliefs. “Effective leader you” realizes that people have a right to their opinions and as long as those opinions don’t affect their work, or the work of the people around them… your position is best left unstated.

At times, you do need to be “yourself,” like when you’re asked to do something that runs counter to your core values or ethics.

Otherwise, your goal should be to always strive to be a better version of yourself. To learn from great role models. To adopt new tools and strategies. To adapt to changing conditions.

And most importantly, to adapt your leadership style to the needs of your employees, both as a group and as individuals.

Instead of conforming to some inner need to be totally “true” to yourself.

So be authentic, to the degree that it is helpful to the people you serve.

Strive to be a high self-monitor so that you can adapt and respond to the needs of the people you serve.

And most importantly, as Moneypenny CEO Joanna Swash says, “Be honest and open. Don’t pretend you know everything. Be very clear if you have to make tough decisions – and tell people why you made those decisions.”

What should I have said to that employee? Something like this: “You know we’ve been struggling. We’ve had a lot of meetings to look at options. I wish I could, but I really can’t tell you anything at this point. It’s not fair to others if I tell you something that I haven’t shared with everyone.

“But here is what I can tell you: Whenever decisions are made, and I can share those decisions, I will tell you and everyone else immediately. I promise you’ll hear it directly from me. And I promise we’re doing everything we can to make a bad situation as good as possible.”

If I had been in charge, what should I have said to the managers and supervisors who would likely be asked the same question?

“Tell them the truth. Tell them we’re struggling and that layoffs are, unfortunately, possible. And then tell them the best thing we can all do is work as hard as we can to turn this around.”

That approach would have been authentic. That approach would have been indicative of high self-monitoring (and emotional intelligence).

And that approach would have been open, and honest.

Which is the best kind of leader to be.

About the author

Jeff Haden is a keynote speaker, contributing editor of Inc. magazine, LinkedIn Influencer, and author of The Motivation Myth.

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