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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Authenticity in the Workplace

  • Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Nov 18, 2020
Authenticity in the Workplace

This blog is the fourth in a series derived from the insights shared by leaders in the public, private and not for profit sector during Ivey’s Learning from Leaders course.

Tara John, Vice-President of Talent Management at Manulife shared her advice with students on authenticity and bias in the workplace. She has over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry and has worked across Canada and the US in both frontline sales and human resources roles. She holds an MBA from Dalhousie University and an Honours BA in Business Management from the University of Toronto. She is also a member of the Leadership Council for the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey.

Authenticity in the Workplace

Research has shown that authenticity is critical to leadership success. Unfortunately, individuals often feel a tension between being their authentic selves and conforming (or at least trying to blend in) to the dominant or pervading culture of an organization. This tension can lead some people to reduce, alter or eliminate the presentation of ethnic, religious, racial, social, economic, educational and other identifiers. At the same time, employees can resent the pressure to “fit the mold” and find themselves at a crossroads.

In John’s experience, “leaders who are the most successful are the ones that remain true to themselves and bring their whole selves to work.” She believes this because “the internal conflict you will go through when you're trying to be something that you are not will eventually come out in your interactions with your peers, with your team, and how you deliver your work. You are going to have that continual struggle, and you are going to be caught in a place where your feel constant tension.” Hiding who you truly are douses your ability to demonstrate creativity and bring great ideas to the table. It can also diminish your sense of belonging, work satisfaction, as well as your self-esteem and confidence. As a leader, it also sets an uncomfortable tone— inauthentic behaviour often manifests as awkwardness (at best) and can limit how employees feel about their own ability to be themselves.

Research shows that a leader impacts the engagement of their team to levels as high as 70%. One way leaders can cultivate authenticity and motivate their employees and teams is by having the humility to share that they are not the sole expert and that team success relies on everyone’s contributions. With her teams, it is important to John that everyone understands that she relies on them and values their perspective. To accomplish this she encourages “effective challenging,” in that she wants everyone to feel free to challenge her ideas so she can ensure “that we're actually all participating together and bringing the best solutions to the organization.” Additionally, John gets to know her employees on a personal level that goes beyond their work persona. By connecting in this way, it allows them to be open and vulnerable with one another and creates an understanding that they are “in this together. I have their back.” By establishing a comfort level with each other that embraces authenticity, vulnerability and effective challenge, John has found that “it helps people want to bring their best to work and gives them the opportunity to shine.”

While being authentic and embracing vulnerability may be key to leadership success, to do so can require courage at the same time. Society – both inside and outside the workplace – is riddled with expectations or standards that are hardly standard at all, in that they are not ubiquitous or even consistently attainable. They can include standards of beauty and dress from a racialized and gendered perspective, standards of thought, speech, ability, and so on. John, who is a Black woman, candidly shared a story of her own reckoning with personal authenticity. “For the longest time, I would blow my hair out straight for every single meeting and interview I had in my entire career. Then came one particular meeting when it was my first time being introduced to our company’s U.S. board of directors. I went to the hairdresser extremely early on a Wednesday morning to have my hair done. When I arrived at the meeting, the only two people from the board in the room were the chairman of our HR committee (who I had already met) and one of our business leaders— every other board member was on the phone. So, ultimately, I went through this big hair-straightening activity because I thought I needed to show up in a way where I would look how they expected me to….all for a 10-minute presentation. I came out of that experience saying to myself ‘my hair is naturally curly; what they're focused on is what I'm saying and my message on delivering our talent strategy. I am not going to do that again.’ And to put it in context: that was year 20 of my career.”

To add additional context for those who are thinking “it’s just hair,” Black people- especially Black women –living in Western societies have endured anti-Black hair sentiments for centuries. Their natural, curly hair did not conform to Eurocentric norms of beauty and, later, professionalism, and to this day impacts how many black women feel they are expected to show up in the workplace. Even a woman as admired and respected as Michelle Obama employed a “hair strategy” while in the White House. The impact of our societal bias against Black individuals’ natural hair has often gone far beyond the pressure to emulate Eurocentric standards of appearance—it has resulted in discrimination, job loss, rescinded job offers, suspensions from school, expulsions from athletic competitions, etc. In 2019, due to the prevalence of such discrimination, California to become the first state to legally and specifically protect the hair of Black students and employees through the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair); seven US states have since followed. There are no protections of this nature in place in Canada.

A few years later, John was participating in a conversation on diversity and “covering” (i.e., hiding your authentic self) with colleagues and recounted her hair-straightening story. At the end of the session, many colleagues came up to her—men, women, people of color, senior colleagues—and told her how much her story resonated with them and that they felt a similar pressure. John’s story highlighted that even the most successful leaders struggle with pressures to conform or fit in and that organizations need to openly promote and cultivate a culture of authenticity, diversity, and inclusivity to ensure their employees can bring their whole and best selves to their role.