Can you be your true self and empathetic towards others at the same time?
I remember my first coaching session at Google, 3 months into the job in the UK. I had the opportunity to meet a coach, once every month to help me grow and develop. I was thrilled to be in the job I loved and at the company I admired. I was determined to bring my best self to work, but also, my authentic self. That's where things started to get a bit tricky.
My most authentic self is direct and cuts to the chase. I find being that way highly efficient both for myself and also for others. I also know that many people appreciate the no-nonsense approach as they know what they are getting and they also know that I am being transparent. However, as it turned out, not everyone was a fan. Even worse, some people would express their opinions in a way that I would find somewhat encrypted. To give you an example: "this is a good first draft" seemed to be more along the lines of: "this is crap, you'd better rework it asap". And that's why I found myself using my coaching session to learn subtle ways and expressions in which some of my colleagues shared their thoughts.
Fast forward a year, I was in NYC. I had the opportunity, as part of the APMM program at Google, to have a new, year-long assignment for the first 3 years. I also got a new coach, like all the other APMMs, this time in the US. So what did we talk about? My new coach suggested that I should try and be a bit more straightforward, speak with more authority, and try and be a bit more self-promoting. For example, instead of starting my sentences with "I think", just state what I actually think. It comes across as stronger and more powerful. Oh, and I was given expressions that apparently make anyone sound more confident in meetings... Wasn't I trying to tone these things down just a year before?
Being authentic and bringing your authentic self to work seems to be a hot topic for the last few years. So what does authenticity actually mean? And more importantly, can it be used as a "trump card" or as an excuse for showing up just how you are?
Today, I work with teams to help them become high-performing. Often, one of the first things they do is to complete the LX AI survey, our proprietary tool for personality profiling that also includes work styles such as leadership, teamwork, comms, etc. There is a common question people ask as they are completing the survey: “Does this question refer to when I am at work, or when I am with my friends?”
The reality is, most of us behave differently depending on the context and there is a reason for that. In our professional life, we learn how to fit in at work in order to get ahead / get promoted / keep the job, etc. You learn the rules of the game, and you are all set. At least, that's what we are taught.
Now, let’s say you decide to bring your true self to work. You decide that you are no longer willing to put up a facade and say what you are supposed to say or do what wins you the most points in the career game. The issue is, when done poorly, this approach can create some serious, career-limiting problems and so authenticity backfires. Good idea, bad execution.
When I hear someone say “I got into an argument because I was just trying to be myself”, that is authenticity badly executed. Offending others, storming out of a room, being hurtfully blunt or having an adult tantrum, etc. paints a bad picture of what it truly means to be authentic. It creates the impression that authenticity always comes with repercussions.
Being authentic without showing empathy is selfish and careless. Have as much respect and kindness towards others as you have towards yourself.
A common definition of authenticity is who you are at core aligns with your values and your behavior. My definition of authenticity is centered around the best version of yourself, and whether you can show up like that day-to-day. My best self, for example, is calm under pressure, treats others with respect, delivers on promises, and keeps things organized. I stop there as my inner voice doesn’t let me say too many nice things about myself. :)
Now, I have bad days too, and so I am not always all these things. But how you handle bad days, stress, conflict, deadlines, irritating people, fill in the blank, etc. is also part of your "best self". Reacting with an emotional outburst or by walking out on someone is not something anyone can be proud of. It happens and it’s ok, we learn from it and move on, knowing we will try harder next time to respond better.
Even when things aren't as dramatic, there are subtle ways in which empathy can go a long way. In the previous examples, the common theme is this:
You don't treat people how you want to be treated, but in a way they want to be treated.
In the UK, there was a need for more subtleties and nuanced communication. In the US, I learned that my colleagues appreciated a more 'get-to-the-point' approach combined with a strong presence. We all have our natural styles, but we can also flex those styles. This is one of the most valuable and insightful parts of the LX books and something that people I work with can put into practice immediately.
So what's the "so what?", you may ask. Even if you haven't done any personality profiles, you can do this simple exercise. When you look at your behavior, the good, the bad, and the ugly, ask yourself: “is this my best self that I feel proud of?” or "what would my best self (the person I want to become) do in this situation?"
Your authentic best self has empathy towards others, so make sure you don't forget that.