People can be a lot like icebergs; we often reveal only a small fraction of our real selves and keep the rest well-hidden below the surface.
Executive coach and author of Be Yourself, everyone else is already taken
, Mike Robbins, clarifies that we all vacillate between being authentic and putting up a protective front. It’s not that we set out to lie exactly, but we learn to “massage the truth.” If you’ve felt nervous at work but pretended not to be; acted like you knew more than you really do; failed to speak up when you observed someone making racist or sexist comments; or feigned greater enthusiasm for your boss’s idea than you really felt, these can all be examples of being less than genuine.
We have legitimate concerns about being authentic at work for fear of being judged, misunderstood, or rejected, and sometimes because we don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or don’t want to hear “no.” We might even avoid being authentic because we feel too busy to take the time, or due to expectations for how we think we should behave. Still, being untruthful stands in the way of building meaningful, sustainable relationships with others, and even with ourselves.
The authenticity formula
“There is no such thing as an authentic person,” Robbins says. “But we can have authentic moments.” Most of us spend a lot of time somewhere in the middle on a continuum between totally phony and lying, and being completely honest. When you dwell at the phony end of the continuum, you are likely not even in alignment with yourself. But being totally honest can have challenging repercussions too when messages are not well delivered or received. Robbins argues that authenticity actually exists beyond honesty and is characterized by a sense of being real and genuine.
He says the first step to transforming raw (and potentially harmful) honesty into authenticity is to remove self-righteousness. “You can have passion around your beliefs and feel your opinions are the right ones,” Robbins says, “but being self-righteous about them separates us from other people. It’s not conducive to building relationships, and it’s not conducive to creating empathy and compassion between human beings, or even for ourselves.”
Once you remove self-righteousness from the equation, Robbins says it’s time to add in vulnerability. He advocates a simple exercise that can be done between two colleagues to consciously and deliberately lower the water line on your iceberg just a little so you can share (without oversharing) more of the real you.
If you really knew me
The exercise is done simply by pairing up with someone else and taking turns answering the question, “If you really knew me in this moment, you’d know this about me.” The point is not to drag out the most intimate details of your personal struggles, but rather to check in with yourself in that present moment, and share literally what’s on your mind.
In setting up the exercise for participants, Robbins shared that in that moment he was feeling excited, but also nervous about speaking to such a large group and immediately after a sitting senator. Taking things one step deeper, he shared how much he enjoys his work, but that he really misses his family due to the frequent travel. Finally, he said, “If you really knew me in this moment, you’d know I’m missing my mother because being here in New York City reminds me of her.” Then he explained that his mother had passed away a few years earlier but that, when she was alive, she would have wanted to hear everything about his time in the city.
The exercise helps people connect more as individuals who likely share many similar experiences and emotions. It is especially effective at getting to the emotions of empathy and compassion for ourselves and others, Robbins explains. We get an opportunity to see the other person as more multifaceted and relate to aspects of their lives and to the human concerns they have.
“As leaders, you have to go first,” Robbins says. “Vulnerability is the driver of human trust and connection. It’s also the birthplace of innovation and change and risk and all the things that are most important to us. If we’re going to do anything new or different or we’re going to grow, we’ve got to be vulnerable.”
To open the door to greater authenticity for yourself and others, start by focusing on these behaviors.
- Listen closely to people without interrupting.
- Ask questions to explore their ideas and further your own understanding.
- Be willing to make requests, such as asking for support.
- Admit when you don’t know something and need input.
- Share at least some aspect of what you are really thinking about.