by Nick Mills

ian-thorpeIan Thorpe’s recent coming out in the news made me reflect on the importance of authenticity in the workplace, as well as the importance of a need to feel comfortable to be your authentic true self.

One’s sexuality isn’t always one of the things we hide at work, but sometimes it happens — for all kinds of reasons. It could be because of a challenging personal issue or because of a number of personal prejudices or fears that we choose to keep that part hidden.

Some of this can be explained by the Johari Window, a communication model that is widely used to improve understanding between individuals. The word ‘Johari’ is taken from the names of Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, who developed the model in 1955.

There are two key ideas behind the tool:

  1. That you can build trust with others by disclosing information about yourself.
  2. That, with the help of feedback from others, you can learn about yourself and come to terms with personal issues.



The four quadrants of the Johari Window are:

1. Open Area (Quadrant 1)

This quadrant represents the things that you know about yourself, and the things that others know about you. This includes your behavior, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and “public” history.

2. Blind Area (Quadrant 2)

This quadrant represents things about you that you aren’t aware of, but that are known by others.

This can include simple information that you do not know, or it can involve deep issues (for example, feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, unworthiness, or rejection), which are often difficult for individuals to face directly, and yet can be seen by others.

3. Hidden Area (Quadrant 3)

This quadrant represents things that you know about yourself, but that others don’t know.

4. Unknown Area (Quadrant 4)

This last quadrant represents things that are unknown by you, and are unknown by others.

As the diagram reveals, people are complicated. While it’s an admirable goal to want to seek self-actualisation, as well as to be transparent with others, it’s not always simple to do so.

In reality, disclosure can often backfire when what we try to hide is mistaken for something else.  As a facilitator myself, I have to constantly navigate the minefield of how much of myself I ‘show’ in the workplace. Too much and I lose credibility, and it becomes about me. Too little, on the other hand, and it can fire up the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as people wonder what I’m not showing.  

What’s going on is that our brains have an ‘error detection centre’ that is constantly scanning the environment for incongruity, a critical evolutionary development. According to researchers at York University in Toronto, errors indicate the need to adjust attention for improved future performance. Detecting errors is thus a fundamental step to adjust and control attention. 

So the ways we present ourselves, which is a combination of self-awareness, details we choose to disclose, and a number of factors that operate on subconscious levels, can have a big impact in the workplace. Because humans are primed to detect incongruities makes us subtly aware when someone is being authentic and when they are not.

While we admittedly sometimes misread cues or project intentions onto people’s actions in the workplace based on our own narrative, because of the ACC, we are also correctly able to read when people are withholding their true selves, being ‘fake’, or holding something back.  That’s why they say that folks can spot a fake.

Because so much of our interactions rely on trust — both in the workplace and in our personal lives — it’s a good idea to be as authentic as possible. That said, privacy should also be valued. In his own time, Ian Thorpe accepted the mantle of leadership, sharing his authentic self with the world and perhaps inspiring others to do the same.