Authenticity, transparency and vulnerability: What’s the difference?

I’m having a hard time writing about this topic. must admit, the last presidential debate was pretty horrifying. We all watched the leader of the US of A, ranting and interrupting and bullying in a tragic example of authenticity.

According to Vanity Fair, “Trump doesn’t accept the consensus that the debate was a disaster because, sources said, he was unabashedly himself.

In other words, he was authentic. The genuine Trump. The real deal.

He was also completely transparent: he wasn’t trying to hide behind convention or be someone he’s not, which is often why his supporters say they like him.

But vulnerable? No way. Vulnerability requires self-awareness in the context of other human beings. It’s the feeling we get when we’ve perhaps revealed too much of ourselves, or we’re afraid to reveal out of fear of being judged.

Authenticity is the truth of who we are, whereas transparency is the degree to which we reveal that truth. From opaque to translucent to transparent, we make judgement calls on how much we can reveal, to whom, and when.

Alone on a desert island, we’d all be authentic and fully transparent. We could run around naked, shout expletives at the sky, and be as weird as we wanted without any sense of vulnerability. I suppose that can describe narcissists as well.

But of course none of us live on desert islands.

It’s not all or nothing

We all yearn to bring our whole selves to work, because the energy required for mask upkeep is exhausting. All eyes are on the leaders to model the level of transparency that’s acceptable within the culture.

Historically there’s been too little transparency, where everyone’s walking on eggshells trying to guess at people’s real identities, emotions and intentions behind the armor and masks.

In an over-correction, the trend now is to let it all hang out. But too much self-transparency can scare the crap out of people and potentially cause you to lose credibility; there’s such a thing as authentically inappropriate. When a plane hits turbulence and everyone’s watching the crew, it’s wise to keep imposter syndrome under wraps.

I’m not so sure about this vulnerability trend; vulnerability is intimate; it can’t be forced. It’s a guide, not a goal. Instead of being caught in duality of all or nothing, perhaps there’s a third way.

The third way: Translucent

Being mindfully transparent is about revealing our humanity without pointing out the hair growing out of the wart. Transparency is potent stuff: we need to know the right dosage, the right degree of “see-through-ness” or translucency for the situation. What’s the right degree? That depends on an awareness and understanding of both ourselves and our listeners. 

It requires an exploration of the intersection between ME and THEY… which, of course, is WE. It’s about balancing relatability and truth with confidence.

  • ME: What is the most genuine version of me? What am I feeling right now? What do I need? This self-listening and self-validating step helps ground us in our truth. It’s about being vulnerable with ourselves first, so that it can be transmuted into strength.
  • THEY: Who are my (peers, team, partner, etc.) as human beings, not titles? How do they feel now? How do they want to feel? How comfortable are they with emotion? What do they need from me? These answers come from empathy and deep listening. 
  • WE: Within the context of our shared humanity, what’s my role as a leader in moving us towards our collective desired state? What’s one story I can tell that establishes a human connection? What do I say (or how do I say it) to earn both relatability and trust?

Start with who.

This is all part of the process I call Start With WHO. So much business discussion is focused on why (purpose), what we do and how we do it. But so few start with who: Who am I as a leader? Who are my peers and colleagues and customers, and what shared identity bonds us together?

A leader doesn’t build a product or a department or a company: he or she builds a sense of belonging by magnetizing a tribe of diverse individuals who come together because they’re wired similarly. The similarities may be purpose, or it may be identity, values, or needs. Rebels, travelers, change-makers, connectors, security-seekers, DIYers, catalysts… when we start with an authentic who, beginning with leadership, everything else falls into place.

Within this tribe, we can safely drop the masks. We can model a greater degree of transparency, showing our genuine selves, because we’ve created a safe space for people just like us. The uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability are diminished; we know we won’t be judged. This still doesn’t mean we can let it all hang out in a vulnerability-induced verbal vomit that shakes people’s confidence, but it sure simplifies where to draw the line.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

masks at work

Authenticity at work: removing the masks

Conformity has been king for far too long. Stuffing ourselves into expectation- or fear-laden boxes creates stress, wipes out essential diversity, and kills our souls. My globe-trotting sabbatical last year gave me the opportunity to step back and pay attention to the masks I donned daily; my hope is that the coronavirus shut-down is affording you the same. 

It’s the job of leaders to model authenticity at work, but what does that really mean? And how does one go about doing it? One way might be to explore the three types of masks we tend to wear: Identity, Viewpoints and Emotions.

Identity: Who I am

The identity mask hides the fact that I feel different from other people. Given the fact that no two people are exactly alike, perhaps we all mask to a lesser or greater extent. Thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, more of us are learning about how our black colleagues code-switch, which involves “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” 

As a gay, neurodiverse female, I certainly played the game of conformity in ways I can only see now in hindsight. I became an armor-wearing brain on a stick, unhappy and burned out, eventually not fooling anyone but myself. It took a year-long sabbatical for self-reflection and acceptance, befriending my intuition and emotions, before I healed enough to return to the business world as a whole, integrated human being. I now know myself well enough to create a career and environment that works with my strengths and natural limitations.  

Thriving workplaces are safe spaces in which we’re free to be ourselves; authenticity is the foundation of employee and customer loyalty. It starts with leaders who have the courage to slowly reveal their own truths and give permission to others to do the same, which requires self-awareness and compassion. It’s essential to notice judgments about differences, starting with our own; what we want to hide is often the source of our power. The more love we have for our own uniqueness, the more easily we can value the uniqueness and diversity of others. 

The key to authenticity is knowing the difference between limitations (the natural boundaries of who I am as a human being) and weaknesses. We accept the former and seek to fix only the latter. When we become whole, without disowning parts of ourselves, we’re able to create whole, coherent organizations. The inner transformation creates the outer transformation. 

Questions: Do you fully embrace and love yourself, warts and all? Do you respect your limitations, using this as a guide for staying true to your strengths? Do you notice when you judge yourself and others, and challenge your own thinking? Do you call out others who judge? Do you actively embrace differences with curiosity, and seek to build diverse teams?

Viewpoints – what (and how) I think 

You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not experienced enough to have a valid opinion. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m going to override it. If you can’t explain how you arrived at this conclusion, it must be wrong. 

Do these sound familiar? If we believe these messages are true, then we’ll either wear the masks of silence or agreement, engage in negative self-talk, or repeat these phrases to others; I know I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. When we don’t know how to deeply listen to our own inner wisdom, it’s impossible to truly hear other people or stand up for ourselves.  It also becomes impossible to simply admit that we don’t know something, even though “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” can be one of the most empowering things we can say. 

Part of listening to ourselves is understanding how our brains are wired; if our dominant “mind mode” is different than those around us, we’re going to feel out of place. We’ll hear “you’re wrong” more often, even if it’s untrue. Either we need to choose a workplace that values how we think, or as leaders we need to recognize and encourage this diversity of thought.  

I’m a pattern-matching, bottoms-up, lateral thinker who tried way too hard to fit into top-down, analytical consulting environments. Thanks to my efforts to conform, I expanded my thinking styles and added more Analytical tools to my problem-solving toolbox… but it came at a cost. The toxic pressure to fit in, and my failed attempts to change systems that no one saw were broken, took a toll on my mental health. And my employers failed to capitalize on the fact that I saw things in a totally different and equally valid way. 

Questions: As a leader, do you disregard or judge opinions that aren’t in alignment with how you think or approach problems? Do you reward or suppress intuition? Do you create and orchestrate teams with diversity of processing styles, aka ‘mind modes’ (Analyzing, Connecting, Sensing and Feeling) in order to nourish creativity, innovation and personal growth of everyone involved? 

Emotions – how I feel 

So you’ve checked the boxes on inclusion and diversity. You have women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity reflected at every level of your organization. You’re discovering the innovative power of different thinking styles, and you encourage admission of limitations and not-knowing. Are you done? 

Not until you welcome what makes us truly human into the workplace: our core needs and emotions. After 3 decades of insight-based strategy work, my single biggest takeaway is that emotions, not logic, is what motivates behavior. Yet we hide behind the sterile mask of Analyzing Mind because the murky world of emotion feels too vulnerable and unsafe.

Our 34,000 human emotions fall into two camps: 

Mutable

This is the ebb and flow of pleasant and unpleasant emotions based on circumstance; emotionally aware leaders are able to work with discomfort, dropping into their bodies to name, embrace and release what they’re feeling so they can move forward in a healthy way. An emotionally aware organization is able to acknowledge, discuss and resolve the root issues of what’s keeping them stuck. 

Questions: As a leader, can you reveal that you too are human, and that you feel the common emotions of fear, shame, anxiety? Work empathetically with an employee to unpack why they’re feeling frustrated or unheard? Encourage others to verbalize what they’re feeling in order to address the real root of why your organization is stuck?

Motivating

A small set of motivating emotions connected to our 12 core human needs can serve as unchanging North Stars for organizations. Every great brand takes this approach, from Apple (creativity) to Nike (achievement) to Allstate (safety) to Virgin (freedom). The emotional outcome that is predictive of business outcomes serves as the central organizing principle of effective organizations.

What I have come to learn recently is that it’s one thing to objectively talk about the critical role of needs and emotions in business. It’s quite another to embody them as leaders… and it’s only when the latter happens can we fully harness the power of emotion. When cultures are built to help both employees AND customers to feel more (free, safe, creative, connected, etc.) — and when the leadership team are motivated by the same emotions — now we’re talking rocket fuel. The entire ecosystem wallows in exactly how they all want to feel. This is the root of customer-centricity and authenticity.

Questions: Do you know how you want to feel in your life and work, and use these in your decision making? Do you know how your customers want to feel when working with your business, and to what extent this emotion predicts top-line business results? Are you aware of the core needs and emotions that motivate the behavior of your peers or leadership team, and identified conflicting needs?

Which of the three types of masks are worn in your organization? Are diverse identities, viewpoints and emotions welcome and celebrated in your workplace?

The missing ingredient in how we define success

Much is being written today about empathy and soft skills being essential leadership traits. Researchers from DDI identified empathy as a critical driver for overall performance, yet found that only 4 out of every 10 leaders are any good at it. Chances are, the memorable leaders throughout your career revealed their hearts, not just their smarts.

Empathy is, of course, only one aspect of our humanity. It’s time to explore what truly makes us human — the qualities that can’t be replicated by robots and artificial intelligence anytime soon — and get real about why they are so elusive in today’s workplaces.

Chances are, the memorable leaders throughout your career revealed their hearts, not just their smarts.

The balance between left-brain logic and our less quantifiable sides — intuition, emotions, authenticity — is rarely rewarded in most organizations. The obsession with data, digital, business models and winning tends to relegate these dimensions to the sacrificial altar… leading to burnout and dissatisfaction.

I speak from experience. Years ago I was humiliated in front of my team for my more intuitive approach to strategy, getting it gradually beaten out of me in favor of the “right” way. I’ve provided emotional support for clients who were ostracized for not fitting the mold and playing the game. I’ve worked with leaders who want to manipulate customers and employees to love their brand without feeling the necessity of loving them first.

Several of you have shared that you’re feeling guilty about enjoying the lockdown created by coronavirus. You’re able to spend more time deepening their connections with friends, family, and most importantly, yourselves. You might be feeling reluctant to return to a sterile workplace setting where humanity is set aside in favor of hard-charging performance.

The missing ingredient is within each of us

So many of us would like for work to be a safe space where success isn’t defined solely by the numbers. So why isn’t it happening? My friend Julie provided a clue when she told me last week:

“Being true at work scared or intimidated people. They didn’t know what to do with honesty and authenticity. Some days I played the game to make them more comfortable.”

During my recent 2-year sabbatical from the corporate environment, I gave myself the permission to let go of my left-brain crutch and drop into full self-acceptance… and now I can see that company performance and culture are simply mirrors reflecting the level of empathy and love we’ve learned to direct inwardly.

We can’t honor other people — including customers, partners and employees — until we know how to honor ourselves. That means taking time for self-care, listening to our needs, accepting emotions, and setting healthy boundaries. Knowing and acknowledging what we’re feeling, instead of pushing emotions away, is the ultimate demonstration of self-kindness and self-respect… and it’s impossible to show it to others until it’s cultivated in our inner worlds.

When we can give ourselves permission to drop into our hearts and lead from that grounded place, we become stronger, more confident, more at ease. Ironically, vulnerability is the source of power… it’s deeply connecting, and we’re all so much stronger together. Bringing our whole selves — mind, body, heart and soul — to work sounds overly sentimental, but it’s precisely what creates success in every sense of the word.

Love, Jen

We find belonging in our darkness

My biggest problem is that I look too normal. If you didn’t know me — heck, even if you do — my appearance would lead you to a pile of incorrect assumptions:  that this tall, slender, blue-eyed blonde has always been popular, probably a cheerleader in high school, successful in career and in love, and that I generally get what I want. And when I don’t conform to your expectations – which happens when my mask slips – you might write me off as weird, or a bitch, or entitled, or however else your filter might interpret my usually well-meaning actions. Trust me: I’m pretty familiar with all of them by now.

Let’s just get the big stuff out of the way right up front, shall we? I’m a gay, neuro-diverse (aka Asperger’s or high-functioning autistic), only child, ex-military brat who is never, ever going to fit into mainstream society no matter how hard I try. And oh, how I’ve tried. I learned all the social rules as best as I could, but they’re not instinctive. In my darkest days of trying to be someone I wasn’t, a friend told me, “you’re just not a girl’s girl” to explain why I was gently evicted from that circle of friends. I had no idea what that meant, but knew I simply had to try harder. At what, exactly, I wasn’t sure.

“What do you want from me?” I‘d cry to the uncaring world, weeping alone on my living room floor after another unintended social gaffe led to another rejection or another lost job, willing to drain my life blood for this feeling of belonging that seemed so easy for other people. Through decades of repeated traumatic losses, developing and eventually (mostly) recovering from PTSD, I’ve excavated the many reasons behind the fact that I am, and always will be, an outsider. And I’m ok with that.

Nowadays my outsides are a bit more aligned with my insides: I cut my hair, got a tattoo, and love to wear my motorcycle boots. I’ve slowly figured out how to be myself even in the business world. A few years ago I made an agreement with myself: that instead of sacrificing my life to fit into the mainstream world, I’d create my own. I now see that this motivation powered my decision to bolt overseas. And if I can succeed in creating a sense belonging while I’m on this nomad adventure, anyone can.

Why am I telling you all this? I think it’s essential to start normalizing and talking about the less-sexy stuff that makes us human. Over the past 6 months of solitude and reflection, I’ve come to realize that our power dwells in what we’ve hidden in darkness. That whatever we keep secret becomes a festering wound that’s visible in some form or another to everyone but ourselves. And that the only way to heal is to bring these truths and experiences into the light of awareness: to stand in our strength and embrace them, fully and completely: the beautiful lotus in the mud of human existence.

So I’m not writing this for you: I’m writing it for me. This is who I am, and it’s so liberating to set down the mask under the mask: the one everyone wears whether they know it or not.

The closet is not just for gays: it’s for any deviation from the media-defined norm, and let me tell you, it’s pretty damned crowded in here. When I shared with my dad my delighted discovery that I’m very likely on the spectrum – hurray! My entire life now makes sense! — he quickly advised, “don’t tell anyone.” Because that’s exactly what the older generation did: sweep uncomfortable things under the rug and don’t acknowledge it no matter what, even if the walls crumble and the house falls down.

There’s a reason why Brene Brown is so popular; she’s willing to openly talk about topics that no one else will even acknowledge. Much of the world is suffering from the absence of vulnerability. Society trains us to only see, respond to and judge each other’s constructed identities. As long as we all wear our masks, we can laugh, drink and pretend together that the world is as perfect as we make it look, all the while dying inside a little bit every day, thirsty to be seen for who we really are. And when seen, accepted.

The new thing now is Straight Pride: a far-right meme that snowballed into an actual event in Boston this year where a couple hundred straight conservatives marched in parody of Gay Pride. What a hoot. I actually love this idea, but they haven’t quite grasped the real purpose. A Pride parade is about taking out of hiding something deemed as shameful (but really isn’t) and wearing it like armor so it can never be used against you. Here’s what should happen in a real Straight Pride: everyone marches while holding up signs like:

  • “I’m overweight and I’m proud of it.”
  • ”I’m autistic and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m an introvert and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m sensitive and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m hairy and proud of it.”

Or maybe we dig deeper into things that might not make us proud, but they make us who we are. They’re those unhappy facts of life that we need to just own already instead of pushing away in horror like a dead rat. Why? Because countless other human beings are struggling with the exact same secret, all suffering in silence, all losing an opportunity for genuine connection and belonging with others who really, truly get it. Which means I’d expect to see Straight Pride signs with whatever is making each person feel so alone in this world:

  • “I’m depressed and can’t get out of bed in the mornings.”
  • “My brother is homeless.”
  • “I have a mental illness.”
  • “I lost my job.”
  • “I’m failing at ____”
  • “I’m HIV positive.”
  • “I was raped.”
  • “I committed a crime and I regret it.”
  • “I drink too much.”

THIS is what Straight Pride — scratch that — what life needs to be about: the deep inner work of owning who we really are and not what our masks lead others to believe. This is what members of the LGBTQ community have been wrestling to the ground. This is the spirit of Pride that I suspect we’d all love to witness: millions of people stepping into their power by paradoxically embracing what society says is weakness. Which means: understanding. Empathy. Inclusion into this big group we call Humanity instead of the ridiculous infighting that’s going on now between opposing groups in the name of a sad, diminished, lower-case-b belonging.

What do you think, dear reader? Are you with me? Don’t leave me hanging… I’d love a comment or like if you think I’m on the right track here.

Photo by Agustin Fernandez on Unsplash