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?

To learn more, check out our upcoming experiential group coaching program, which will provide a safe practice space for removing masks and encouraging authenticity.