Vulnerability and authenticity — yes, even in the workplace — are the key ingredients to trustworthy relationships
It’s Monday morning. We yell demands at the kids while we scurry to get dressed, opting to wear the pair of 3 inch heels even though we know our poor toes will regret it tonight. We have a second cup of coffee because we don’t want anyone to think we’re tired or less-than-perfectly energetic. Once at the office, we tell everyone we had a fantastic weekend and pull out our phone to show them the one picture we had time to edit so it would look magazine-worthy.
Later we gather our team members for the weekly meeting (that we secretly dread!) and choose to motivate them with a half-ass inspirational pep talk instead of informing them of the setback the company faced last week. When a colleague asks us to grab lunch, we envision telling her about the exhausting weekend we had arguing with our spouse about finances and the remodel we thought we could afford. But we decline the invitation, saying we already have lunch plans, when the truth is that we have a doctor’s appointment to address the increasing stress level and anxiety in our life. And maybe also that weird rash on our chest.
How lonely and fraudulent it feels to work and lead like this. There has to be a better way!
Indeed, there is.
Vulnerability and transparency in the workplace seem frightening because we were raised to believe that if we show who we really are — flaws and fears and failures and all — we won’t be valued, appreciated, liked or loved. The reality of relationship-building proves to us that this is the ultimate paradox. We cannot live a life of meaningful connection to others if we are inauthentic and hiding behind a facade.
In Bill George’s book, “Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value,” he defines authentic leaders as genuine, moral and character-based leaders. Internally they have determined their own core beliefs and committed to living them out day to day. Externally they rally employees around a shared purpose, and inspire and empower them to use authenticity throughout their work lives.
We can study authenticity, watch others embrace it (check out The Reveal interviews I’m producing with business moguls) and talk about it all we want, but let’s get practical. Here are some simple steps you can take to become a more authentic leader.
Step 1: Reflect on your life story
Take the time and space to reflect on the most difficult times in your personal life. Did you endure health issues, loss, rejection or failure? What were your coping mechanisms and sources of hope? What made you want to persevere instead of giving up?
Step 2: Reframe and share your story
After recalling these struggles, which can easily make you feel like a victim, instead try to see these pivotal points as crucial to shaping your thoughts and behaviors today. What new insights do you have about the world, and how have your interactions with people changed because of them?
Although it may seem like the absolute scariest thing to do, share your life story and insights with your team. You’ll find that your fear of them perceiving you as weak is not valid, and opening up will likely feel immensely liberating. They’ll be pulled in to your story, in awe of such uncommon transparency and respectful of your courage. What’s more, they’ll be better able to understand you and your values/motivations. It’s an amazing feeling for them to discover a struggle or value that they share with you.
A few years ago, before a meeting with an executive my company was seeking to partner with, I shared how defeated I felt from just learning that my spouse and toddler had been diagnosed with severe food allergies. I was pleasantly surprised when the executive’s body language eased, her words were empathetic and supportive, and then she opened up about her father’s dietary restrictions because of a chronic illness. Instant and meaningful connection.
Step 3. Empower your team to share their own stories
Now that they see the benefits of authentic relationship-building, give them the time and space to reflect on their own journey and then share it when they’re ready. You will all begin rooting for each other, seeing each individual as a source of wisdom you can learn from.
No one lives this out better than Sanjay Poonen, the Chief Operating Officer at VMware. He recently told me that the first conversation he has with any new hire is not a deep dive into the role or company’s goals, but rather a chance to hear that person’s life story. And what he’s most interested in are the peaks and valleys, because everyone has both.
Step 4. Show compassion.
When you notice or learn of a teammate facing a personal challenge, offer to listen or help. ** Be careful of trying too hard to be genuine because that’s when hollow statements and canned responses emerge. Instead, say what first comes to your mind as if you’re speaking to a family member.
Originally published at medium.com