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Welcome back! This week we continue our emotional intelligence series by focusing on authenticity, the third component in the Genos Model of Emotional Intelligence

Authenticity is about openly and effectively expressing oneself, honouring commitments, and encouraging this behaviour in others. It involves honestly expressing specific feelings at work, such as happiness and frustration, providing feedback to colleagues about the way you feel, and sharing emotions at the right time, to the right degree, and to the right people.

Essentially: It is about being transparent — however, disclosing every single thought and feeling — is both unrealistic and risky. Authenticity doesn’t mean letting every feeling show, it means cultivating an openness that is appropriately expressed.

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Late and out-of-breath, Leena rushed into work bursting with news. Things were quiet, her colleagues bent over their desks in the open office space. But Leena couldn’t help herself. “I got it! We got the Allmac Tender! This is going to mean big things for us!”

Everyone looked up, offering congratulations, but they were also disconcerted because they it was the first they were hearing about this new tender. Leena gave a quick synopsis of the plans. “It is a big piece of work, and I need your help.”

It took a while for things to settle down again, but eventually everyone returned to work. Leena herself had trouble concentrating. Most of that day she had booked one-on-one catch ups with her team. Because of her excitement, the first few reviews were spent talking about the bid, the process, the secrecy.

In the afternoon, Leena received bad news. The news had been premature. There were questions that needed addressing and then there would be a final decision. Leena was gutted. She excused herself and left the office, whilst she tried to hide it, everyone could tell something was up.

After a quick walk in which she composed herself, she returned to the office late for her next appointment. During that review, she confided her frustration to her staff member and nearly began to cry. The staff member left the review shaking his head, clearly uncomfortable.

Leena’s supervisor, who’d been aware of the unfolding drama, noticed this and asked to see her. When he gently reminded her that her behaviour was inappropriate, she bristled. “I’m just being authentic, which we all know is a good thing!”

Yes, authenticity is a good thing. But what Leena was missing is that sharing emotions must be done at the right time, to the right degree, and to the right people.

What went wrong?

First off, Leena’s late arrival hijacked the entire office. Everyone was caught up in the happy news, and it took a while for them to return to what they were doing. There were also other implications that occupied the for the rest of the day: Why was this the first any of them were hearing of the tender? What kind of impact would it have on their roles? When Leena later stormed out, it was hijacked again.  When she admitted she was terrified, a number of her colleagues lost faith in her abilities. During the performance reviews, when the focus should have been on her staff, how they were doing, and what could be improved, Leena’s mood dominated — happy in the morning sessions and irritated in the afternoon. Finally, when Leena’s boss reprimanded her, she overreacted.

What should be done?

While Leena was right to defend her authenticity in the workplace, she was displaying a simplistic understanding of what it means, and this was limiting her as well as negatively affecting her colleagues.

Being utterly transparent — disclosing every single thought and feeling — is both unrealistic and risky. Authenticity doesn’t mean letting every feeling show, it means cultivating an openness that is appropriately expressed.

Leena should have kept her news and her excitement under wraps until she could call a meeting and make a formal announcement. Had she done this, when she leaned of the additional requirements, she would have looked more effective. As it was, her up-and-down emotions were contagious. Leena’s colleagues were experiencing them without having all the information. While she thought she was being genuine by sharing her real feelings, some lost faith in her leadership when she confessed she was feeling overwhelmed by the new work ahead.

Being authentic also means being open to feedback. When Leena’s boss spoke to her, she reacted without taking a moment to consider the bigger picture. Leena criticized herself for a long time for how she handled things that day, and this too had an effect on her ability to be a good leader.

What Leena failed to realize is that the moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, — which is what Leena was doing — we can best develop a personal style that feels right to us and also suits our organisations’ changing needs.

It’s crucial to recognize that authenticity is a social ability. It’s about what you share as well as how and when you interact with others. Career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, however, they can trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities: When we are unsure of ourselves or our ability to perform well or measure up in a new setting, we might retreat to familiar behaviours and styles.

Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. But each situation involves a number of complex factors that need to be considered. Leena let her feelings dominate under the cover of authenticity, when she would have done better to consider the content, the audience and the timing involved in sharing her news.

Authentic leaders practice the following:

  • View themselves and others as works-in-progress
  • Know who they are, but take care how they share
  • Foster an environment of respect towards others
  • Leverage employee ‘on-boarding’ processes to discover personal styles and preferences
  • Seek and offer personal and professional development training
  • Align personal and organisational values

Authenticity, then, is about giving a message about your true self — one you must continually shape and deliver by thoughtfully choosing your words and behaviors to suit the people you interact with and the specific purpose at hand.