Authenticity and IT leaders

The winter 2015 edition of Harvard Business led with the article – “The problem with authenticity – when it’s OK to fake it till you make it”. We have all probably given advice along the lines of “Just be yourself, you will be fine” to a manager recently promoted. What we are probably meaning here is that “your core values are good ones and try and carry these through to your new position and don’t become inauthentic just because you feel you need to act a new part as a leader”. However, this may not actually be the best advice. What is assumed here is that we have one self and this does not change over time and with experience and different roles. The opposite is of course true. We are really many selves depending on the roles we play at work and in our private lives and we evolve over time influenced by our life experiences and the people we work with and companies we work for. Having an awareness of authenticity and the ability to discuss it with trusted peers or mentors is a positive step in self-awareness and ultimately personal and career progression. As a potentially deeply sensitive and personal subject it is often avoided as it gets to the heart of who we truly are – “our authentic selves” – there is an understandable reticence in sharing and discussing this very personal subject especially if the culture is not geared towards openness. For many IT leaders authenticity will almost certainly become an issue at certain key points in their careers and an understanding of its meaning and the junctions at when it can cause stress or tension can be invaluable.


1. Chameleon or “true to selfer”?


The HBR article quotes a US psychologist Mark Snyder who postulates a range of authenticity from the Chameleon to the “true selfer”. Chameleon’s can naturally adapt to almost any situation without feeling fake and to quote HBR “mask their vulnerabilities with bluster”. Chameleon’s will try out any number of identities in any number of situations until they find a good fit, but will as easily discard this suit of convenience when the situation calls for it. The risks to the chameleon is that people can perceive them as having no real moral centre or compass and in some situations can change too quickly when a situation actually requires consistency of behaviour and outlook. The “true to selfers” are at the other extreme and will express what they think and feel without due consideration for either the impact or the necessity to change when a situation demand it. Most of us will be ranging somewhere between these two extremes and the challenge is to find the right mix of distance and closeness as the situation demands. Observing and not copying management style is probably the most effective way to negotiate the authenticity yardstick. Looking at effective behaviours that can complement your own true values and adapting, but not necessarily adopting these to fit situations and roles will be most effective in the longer term.


2. Disclosure


Stepping into a new role and disclosing your real feelings and thoughts too quickly should be avoided. Its tempting to demonstrate an “authentic you” if you are at the “true selfer” end of the authentic spectrum. It is almost inevitable when you start a new job that you might have some minor doubts about your own capabilities but sharing these with your new team will be counter productive. It can superficially be seen as away of showing your people you’re a rounded human being with self-doubt, vulnerabilities, heart on the sleave etc. but it’s not what they are looking for at this point. Your new team wants certainty and stability in the first few months of your tenure. You need to develop your listening and questioning skills with your new team. It doesn’t mean you should suppress your core values or personality but expressing public doubts at this point will be unsettling.  You need to focus on those attributes, which promote stability such as integrity, professionalism, fairness, consideration and vision etc. It is also almost inevitable that you will make some effort to get to know your team in a social setting outside of work hours. Here its important to avoid excessive alcohol! as this will almost inevitably lead to you letting your guard down too quickly, go for a meal instead of a drinking session! When starting a new role it shouldn’t mean that you abandon your quirkiness or mild eccentricities! just temper any strong inclinations for soul searching and strong opinions not based on considered facts. Your gut instinct will need to be kept to yourself initially at least. First impressions form quickly, they matter and they can stick.


3. When to assess your values


Getting promoted can be a real watershed moment in challenging your authenticity. Attributes and indeed values that have underpinned your success to date need to be reflected upon as you take on a new role. For example, the level of personal control that you exerted in your old job may have been appropriately strict and detailed. Being promoted will almost certainly mean that this level of control will need to change; you will need to deal with more uncertainty and aggregation of information. Getting a control framework right will be essential for you to feel comfortable with this change. Your team need to understand how this loser control structure works as it will be key for you to remain effective in your new role. This change could initially shake your values but ultimately moving outside of this comfort zone is going to ensure your on-going success. This change in control behaviour should be discussed with your people and can be negotiated and phased. You will need to be open with your new teams if they were used to you working with you in your old role, as they may assume that you will just carry on working in your “old self” ways. Don’t assume that this is going to be an easy process, it will require an element of learning, calibration and feedback. Ultimately it should feel quite normal and you will have successfully developed this new aspect of your role and developed another aspect of an authenticity.


 4. In summary


When we see authenticity as a single, unwavering identity we can struggle to take on new roles. We can erroneously think that our attributes and values don’t need to change because they have been successful in the past. New roles require learned behaviours to become successful. Trying out modified behaviours or styles is no bad thing as long as they build on your core personal values. Different attributes can be seen as overlapping circles and different versions of you and as long as they are developed carefully and with consideration of the impact on other people they should be successful. Arbitrarily picking new styles based on text book leadership definitions or based on observation of very different leaders can backfire and could ultimately be viewed an inauthentic. Taking time to observe, learn, try out and adapt effective leaders behaviour based on our own moral compass can be an effective strategy for IT leaders to succeed and progress.

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