I have come to see that those moments that most challenge my sense of ‘self’ often hold the most potential for change and growth. Such moments take me out of my comfort zone, and so face me with a contradiction – of my excitement at discovering a new edge of my personal development and opening to vulnerable-making new experiences; alongside a countervailing impulse to protect my identity at all costs and retreat to familiar behaviours and patterns of engaging with the world…
So it was last week, when I made time to work through a conflict with a colleague who describes me as manipulative and game-playing. I have difficulty recognising myself in this description, so my curiosity was piqued just as much as my feelings were hurt. The situation was charged, as we have to work together soon to co-deliver a leadership development programme. We were each trying to find a way of relating authentically enough to not let our incompatibility have a negative impact on our colleagues and clients.
However, we quickly hit 'the authenticity paradox' when he said he wanted ‘to call a spade a spade’. Now, there is a deep level at which I believe in plain-speaking and naming dysfunctional behaviours. There is also a level at which I have experienced this as shaming, blaming, insensitive and aggressive. When does this freedom of expression to ‘call a spade a spade’ help, and when does it damage relationships? Can we really absolve ourselves from the responsibility of caring for others’ feelings? Are we prepared to deal with the consequences of this brand of ‘authenticity’ on others and ourselves?
Take, for example, a newly-promoted manager who is taking on a massively-expanded range of responsibilities. A strong believer in open, collaborative leadership, she bares her soul to her new team and admits to being a bit scared and in need of their help. Her openness backfires and she loses credibility with the team, who wanted a confident new leader in charge.
Or take, for example, a manager of a large team who is under lots of pressure. Impatient with the recent performance of an experienced and trusted key member of the team, the manager criticises him in front of colleagues for not delivering results and for missing deadlines and quality standards. The criticism does not support any performance improvement, and takes no account of the fact that the team member’s child has been seriously ill in hospital for the last month. The manager’s straight-talking alienates the team and irreparably damages trust.
Getting things off our chest more often than not, can make things worse and betrays a lack of relational awareness. As Herminia Ibarra noted in the HBR some time ago:
Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. But a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact.
Being authentic often means being true to yourself. Yet which self? Identity is not so monolithic and fixed: Gestalt and other psychologies teach us that we have different selves in different roles and contexts. Bert Hellinger, the founder of Systemic Constellations work, notes that our sense of ‘self’ and what we could call ‘authenticity’ is often founded on a loyalty to groups that are important to us, and serves the survival of that group. This sense of loyalty holds a negative judgment against other people and groups that see things differently. This loyalty says, ‘this is good and that is bad’ and leads to conflict – ultimately to war, even to genocide. We have to come to question the values of those groups (including our families of origin) we are members of, and learn to see beyond the loyalties that form our unassailable sense of ‘authenticity’.
Both me and my colleague have inner work to do, to look beyond our judgment of each other and beyond the values that bind us blindly to groups we are loyal to. Because there are many forms of authenticity.