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Exploring The Future of Work: Why We've Got It Wrong About Bringing Our True Selves To Work

I shared the Future of Work Manifesto a while back as a starter for a series of discussions around the Future of Work. Last month, we talked about the myth of the distinction between "work" and "life", and in the post before that we talked about a new definition of work.

Now, as we go through the Manifesto and start digging into each piece of it a little bit, I want to start talking about the first main section:

I. Human beings are the most important asset we have.

1. We need to bring our whole true selves to work. Human-ness has value for the organization.

The concept of bringing our true selves to work is not new, and the theme of authenticity (which is another way of saying that) has been part of the business lexicon for a while now.  So why does it still feel like we're cogs in the machine?

Because while we give lip service to authenticity (few argue that suppressing people's true identity is, by default, good for organizations), we don't actually create organizations that support authenticity in a meaningful way, at least not in a way that understands the complexity and nuances of the concept.

For example, a large percentage of organizations will try to maintain their allegiance to authentic expression in the workplace, yet they will simultaneously and steadfastly defend their office dress codes. It’s important to maintain a “professional” environment, they argue, particularly in front of clients, so they write lengthy policies explaining which types of materials are okay to wear, and they create committees that spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine, once and fall, the core distinction between a “flip flop” and a “sandal.”

As an alternative, consider the dress code of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, one of the organizations I profile in When Millennials Take Over. I can actually reproduce their policy, in its entirety, right here in this blog post:

No nudity.

When my co-author, Jamie Notter, did a site visit for our research, the CEO was proud to point out that the Director of Finance had shown up to work that day wearing shorts and a Blackhawks jersey. And this is not some cool tech firm that is “supposed” to be edgy. This is an association that represents a particular specialty within a community of surgeons—people at the top of a respected (and formal) profession. They have every reason to make the finance director wear a tie, or at least “business casual.”

But they don’t, and that’s because they actually understand the power of authenticity. They are the poster child for the concept I mentioned in last month's post – the digital mindset - which, internally, is a relentless focus on a customized and personalized user experience for the employee of a company as well as the customer.  I said, "What that means is that the individual worker should be able to define their own work experience, to take into account all the non-work things that matter, and be a more engaged employee for it."  

Wearing a Blackhawks jersey may seem insignificant, but when you have that freedom, and don’t have to spend the mental energy to constrict who you are, you end up being more effective at work. ASSH actually accomplishes more than other organizations of similar size and mission. Where most nonprofits run the risk of losing their top talent to the corporate side, ASSH actually attracts applicants from those cool tech companies when a position opens up.

I know this makes a lot of people nervous, much in the same way that social media (with its expectation of authenticity) made businesses nervous at the start. But remember, authenticity does have limits. You are not required to bring 100% of your true self to work (e.g., singing loudly in the shower or yelling at your kids because they still haven't brushed their teeth or swearing all the time--especially at other drivers--or watching Real Housewives all night... oh wait, that's just me).  This is part of the nuance I mentioned. We don’t actually want you to bring your “whole” self to work.  We want you to leverage your true self in the workplace in a way that builds and provides value to the collective. To the team, to the department, to the office as a whole. To quote diversity and authenticity expert, Joe Gerstandt, we want you to fill up all of YOUR space, but not all of THE space.

Authenticity that stops other people doing their best work - that's not the right kind. We want to be authentic for a purpose - to do better work.  Only then can we figure out how to actually allow for everyone's true selves to be valued.

So ignore those posts and articles that either praise authenticity unconditionally or dismiss it as the latest management fad, and start doing the hard work of creating organizations that actually get the most out of the humans (not human “resources”) who work there. 

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