Do you try to be honest and authentic at work?
Have you ever been put in a weird position in which it felt like you were asked to lie to trusted colleagues?
Let’s consider George, who is a middle manager in a large organization. He has worked hard to create a department in which people are open and honest; they are dedicated both as a team and individually. It took a long time to generate this trust and motivation, so George guards it carefully.
Along with several other middle managers, George reports to a director. George does not feel quite as trusting with this group, but he respects their work and values the respect that they have for him.
The director has just announced that there will be a significant re-org that will be announced in two months. Some managers will have to layoff members of their staff. There will be no layoffs in George’s department, but their work will change dramatically in ways that his employees will not appreciate. Some of the projects that his staff is currently working on will be eliminated. George argued that his department needs to know of the changes, but the director disagreed saying that it would only start the rumor mill.
George is stuck. He recognizes the need for silence and he knows that he needs and wants the support of the director and other managers. But his employees are working like crazy on projects that are going to be scrapped. He believes that they will feel so betrayed when this re-org is announced.
Have you been in a similar bind?
vPerhaps you have resigned or gotten promoted; the company doesn’t want to announce it yet and people are looking to you for guidance on long-range projects that you know you will not be supervising.
vPerhaps you work in a capacity (HR, for instance) and know that one of your good friends is in jeopardy of being fired and the friend is not getting the subtle messages that his/her job is in on the line.
The list of possibilities goes on and on. In a world in which we are urging leaders to be more authentic, how can you maintain that authenticity and manage these dilemmas? What do you do?
First of all, let’s clarify a few important points.
There is no right way to handle this. You must make the decision that best fits you and your circumstances. Providing a template for authenticity is antithetical.
Telling the truth does not mean saying everything that you know on the subject. There is a difference between being authentic and being transparent. Authenticity is matching your insides (beliefs, values, knowledge) to your outsides (words and actions). Transparency is exposing some of what is on the inside. But no one exposes everything—that would be weirdly inappropriate. And our insides are complicated—our values, beliefs and knowledge do not always line up in tidy pieces that fit neatly together. In the case of George, he values openness and loyalty. Being too open with his employees may require him to be disloyal to upper management.
Let’s consider possible responses that George might consider. Some of these might inform your own decisions, underlining again, that you must make the best choice for your own authenticity.
George can tell his employees what is going to be happening. He might do this openly by telling the director that he will have to tell his employees about the upcoming changes. Or he might do this privately by telling his employees that he is sharing confidential information. Either way, he risks his relationship with his director and upper management, but if this issue is really important to him, it may be worth the risk. This strategy prioritizes his relationship with the employees.
George could remain neutral and keep silent until the time that he can talk about the change. At the point that his employees realize that they have been doing work that George knew would be eliminated, he may want to first listen to his employees’ responses, empathize with their distress, and then explain the dilemma that he faced. This strategy risks alienating his employees; it prioritizes the upper management and protects George’s job.
George could talk about the process. He might hold the content of the upcoming change private, but talk openly about the process. George might say something like “I am trying to stay loyal to the organization, while at the same time protecting all of you. Some changes are coming and I will tell you everything I know as soon as I can. I can assure you that no one is losing their job.” The risk of this approach is that it may ignite anxiety and, as your director predicted, it could start the rumor mill. This approach is a middle ground, making an attempt to stay authentic while remaining loyal both to the company and the employees.
Thinking about being authentic is energizing. Actually practicing authentic leadership can be messy and complicated.
Learn more about how to be an authentic leader by participating in the Leading UP online coaching and training process.
Contact Dee Giffin Flaherty for information about the Fall 2017 cohort.