We’ve all heard an inspirational TedTalk in which a knowledgeable, wise speaker appears on an illuminated stage and directs their intense gaze to the audience. They start with a heartfelt anecdote and then go on about the importance of “showing up as the real you.” It’s all very motivational, and we’re left feeling inspired to do better.
But then the big question arises: “How exactly do I achieve this in a workplace setting?”
A buzzword that’s entered our collective mindset over the past few years is authenticity. As leaders, we see and hear it everywhere—at conferences, during keynote presentations, in business books, and especially on social media. There’s a pressure for your company and workplace to appear as authentic as possible.
But contrary to popular opinion, there’s nothing more disingenuous than telling people how authentic you are. Adding this tagline to team meetings, for example, comes across as fake. Because what your team members actually want is depth.
And in my 16 years as CEO of my own company, I’ve learned that’s not something that can be commodified. Instead, it comes from our core principles and leadership style.
In other words, it comes from our positive example at the top.
WHAT MAKES UP AN AUTHENTIC WORKPLACE
“Most of us engage in self-presentation in the workplace at least occasionally,” writes Harvard Business Review contributor Vanessa Buote. “We actively manage our behavior, emotions, or the way we are perceived by coworkers and bosses. We do it for a variety of reasons: Some people feel they cannot freely express emotion at work, others believe they cannot share their sense of humor, and still others feel they must ‘have it all together’ or risk hurting their reputation or credibility.”
Overall, Buote’s research revealed that authentic employees fared better than inauthentic employees. They reported significantly increased job satisfaction and engagement, greater happiness at work, a stronger sense of community, more inspiration, and lower job stress. All good things.
When I was a freshly minted entrepreneur, I did the opposite of showing up as myself. At the time, I thought I needed to appear to have everything together all the time. I struggled deeply with perfectionism, and this made it hard for me to connect with others. I’ve learned a lot since those initial days and would like to share some of those lessons with you.
1. Don’t try to lead like someone else.
There was a time when many of my business colleagues would try on a “Steve Jobs” leadership style. I’m sure you can picture it: wearing the same outfit every day, giving lengthy presentations meant to inspire, using motivational quotes for pep talks. As you can imagine, this didn’t necessarily scream “authentic.”
If anything, it was the opposite. When entrepreneurs are founding their first startups, they’ll try on different hats of leadership, trying to figure out which resonates the best with their teams. Some will even try to be “charismatic” at all costs.
But I’d like to suggest an entirely different approach: Lead in the way that comes most naturally to you. If you’re a rebel at heart, then embrace that—but don’t try to fake it. For example, I don’t consider myself someone who gives heated, impassioned speeches. I have a calm, soft-spoken demeanor, and I don’t try to change that aspect of my personality to garner popularity.
Being myself—no matter who I am with—makes me feel more self-assured, and it allows my team to feel they can show up the same way.
2. Make honesty your biggest leadership attribute.
I mentioned the word depth above, and I want to speak more about this value and how it differs from trying to project an “authentic” image.
Creating an authentic workplace does not mean holding “authenticity” workshops where everyone shares their feelings. It’s about showing, not telling. And what I mean by this is leading with honesty and transparency at all times.
Rather than give weekly inspirational speeches, take actions that show genuine care and respect. If someone is struggling, build trust through empathy; create policies that prioritize people’s well-being.
A workplace that places honesty at its center is one with true depth—and that is much larger than some buzzword.
3. Work on yourself consistently.
Author Ursula Le Guin wrote, “The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself.”
There is absolutely no way to create a truly authentic culture unless you’re willing to constantly do the inner work needed to reflect and grow.
I’ve written before about how I believe self-awareness is key for innovation, and one of the reasons is because it allows us to overcome mental challenges and not become self-absorbed. It keeps our focus on doing what as leaders should be our top priority: the well-being of our people, and in creating a workplace that doesn’t promote superficiality over actual meaning and purpose.
We have to know ourselves first in order to understand and empathize with others. I find that practicing mindfulness and regularly taking pauses throughout my day to do absolutely nothing gives me the chance to reflect and process. For example, I’ll go out for a walk outdoors or spend time alone in the mornings. It helps me embrace the present moment so that I can go back to work and be the best possible version of myself—which is what it means to truly show up.
Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform, a leading online forms SaaS solution.