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It was a Tuesday afternoon in the autumn of 2006. I had recently joined a company as the group financial analyst when my phone rang. “I would like to inform you that your father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.” I lived my life dreading such a moment, being an only daughter to my elderly dad. Yet it happened. I spent the following three days reading about Alzheimer’s, making appointments with experts in the field, but mostly crying – at work. I assumed I should hide it, but I couldn’t: my tears were betraying me. My boss, one of the 5 owners of the company, entered my office, closed the door, and said: “you will tell me what is going on, now”. Thankfully, it turned out to be a misdiagnosis, but if there is anything that could summarize the conversation we had and the support I received in the meantime, it is this: I will never forget this leader my whole life.

Being authentic in a work context is not a simple task for both employees and leaders.

When employees speak their minds objectively, they run the risk of not being liked. When they offer honest feedback, they might seem complaining or judgmental. When they are being vulnerable and sharing weaknesses and worries, there is fear and anxiety around their career progression.

Leaders can build an environment of trust to support the employees in that direction and foster an atmosphere of honesty and authenticity, which is a key driver for improved company culture. If leaders are the visionaries who drive organizational cultures, authentic leaders will create unique companies that will entice employees to fulfill the vision.

So how can leaders express more authenticity?

Besides vision and competence, authentic leaders are encouraged to display the following traits:

Honesty

According to a research study by J. Kouzes and B. Posner, 84% of people look for honesty as the number one factor in the leader they would ‘willingly’ follow. Strong values, clear principles and truthfulness are the building blocks of trust and belonging. The aim is to foster a sense of pride in the employees. Questions for the leader to ponder: Am I modeling my beliefs and principles? Am I showing up as my true self? Am I giving employees honest and appropriate feedback?

Vulnerability

Employees want a leader who is courageous enough to be vulnerable, who admits that not all answers are obvious, and who sets an example of when to ask for help. Vulnerability is also about sharing weaknesses and learnings. The idea is that the employees choose to follow a leader who resembles them. Questions to consider: Who can assist me in this matter? Have I shared my feelings about this issue? What are the key learnings?

Support

Supporting the employees sends a clear message that they are cared for and that their paths forward in the company matters. The job becomes a bigger game than the KPIs and turns into a life-long purposeful endeavor for the employee. Questions to ask your employees: What part of your job do you enjoy most? What motivates you? How can I support you to get there?

Compassion

Leaders who connect with genuine care and consideration for the employees’ life outside work enable a culture of family and friendship, which contributes to reducing the 71% global employee disengagement rate. Questions to ask your employees: How are you and your family doing? How is the situation affecting you? What is new in your life outside of work?

Positivity

Leaders who intentionally look for ways to – genuinely, honestly and specifically – praise their employees contribute to the cultural model that generates loyalty and high-performance. Building positivity is similar to adding coins into a piggy bank. When the day comes to give honest, straightforward feedback, the more the piggy bank is full, the more the feedback is welcome. The question for the leader to reflect on: How can I build a reserve of positivity that would allow tough discussions to go smoother?

Being honest and authentic, for both employees and leaders, is not an easy task. But when we create the right environment and culture, the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term concerns. A distinguished organizational culture starts with the leadership team and trickles down to every employee on the payroll. After 14 years, what stayed in my mind was that moment when I felt listened to, cared for, and part of a bigger family. That is authentic leadership in action.