top of page

Why “be authentic at work” is bad leadership advice

I recently joined Ramaa Sharma and Stéphane Mayoux on the first episode of the Reuters’ Institute and University of Oxford podcast: Authentic Leadership, where we discussed, “What does ‘authenticity’ mean?”

While we were specifically exploring it in the context of the news industry (which all three of us have had experience working in), our conversation ended up being broadly applicable across industries.

This remains a question that stumps me. I think of my childhood. For many of us who were born outside the country of our parents’ origin or moved at a very young age to a culture that was very different from the one we’ve seen at home, we’ve had to cultivate strongly disparate versions of ourselves to "fit in" in different places.

Essentially, we learn from a young age how to present ourselves in different ways in different contexts. It's like putting on armor or a heavy coat, sometimes many types.

My example: I grew up with Indian immigrant parents in Singapore, before going to a British elementary school, then an international school in Asia, which was run mostly by western (European and American) educators.

So, of course, this brought about so much confusion on "authenticity" for me navigating many cultures and ways of being since I was a small child. Was my authentic self the one who spoke Hindi at home? Or the one that was taught that a British accent was the best, as I was at school? Was it the “rebel” me as an adolescent that I learned is common in western cultures or the more obedient “good Indian girl” that my mother expected me to be? I never fully understood, and perhaps never will, who my most authentic self is.

How do we navigate authenticity in these different spaces when we’re expected to conform to our different environments?

Everyone can relate to this questioning as we develop from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. But it can be particularly complicated for those who have found themselves underrepresented or underestimated or both, especially in adulthood and then in the workplace. More so, when a value judgment is placed on which "way" is better, like when I was taught that western accents were more professional than the Indian accent I had at home.

I felt so “seen” when I learnt there's a name for it: code-switching—it’s when someone alters their language or cultural expression to better assimilate to their environment. This can serve as a survival tactic, and it may not even happen consciously. This area of study was developed by academics researching the experience of Black professionals in the workplace, who would often feel immense pressure to change themselves to fit into white-dominant workplaces.

Side note: Check out one of my favorite podcasts, the aptly-named, Code Switch. (I joined this episode to talk about the long-term implications of having your name mispronounced!)

We navigate the pressure to conform while also balancing the truth that authenticity makes for better leaders. “Organizations that foster authentic behavior are more likely to have engaged, enthusiastic, motivated employees and psychologically safe cultures,” according to the Center for Creative Leadership. Authenticity allows room for innovation, creativity, and overall increased satisfaction and happiness. When we feel safe to be ourselves and speak up at work, everyone benefits.

My point here isn’t to tell people who’ve never felt fully comfortable at work to be more authentic. It’s to encourage leaders who have found their ways of being (over)represented to be intentional about ensuring that all of your employees feel safe in their authenticity.

It’s much like my thoughts on imposter syndrome, which I’ve written about with Jodi-Ann Burey. The onus shouldn’t be on women (particularly women of color) to learn how to "conquer" imposter syndrome, it’s on organizations to stop telling women they don't belong. Check out Jodi-Ann’s amazing TED talk on authenticity at work!

So how can leaders encourage authenticity among all?

Stop giving women and people of color feedback to become “better, more authentic” leaders. Instead, we need managers and leaders who say, “Don’t feel pressure to conform. I appreciate this part of you that is clearly a very deep core part of you, your leadership, and the frameworks that you bring to the workplace.”

I also love prescribing storytelling as a lever for inclusion. (You know I will always recommend reading works of fiction by those with different backgrounds and experiences from ourselves!) When we amplify and hear stories from others, it makes us feel safer when sharing our own stories.

As writer Akwaeke Emezi says, “The first step to creating a better world is being able to imagine it. Stories can create a bridge between what is possible and what we actually make happen.” When people see my Indian features and expect me to conform to a stereotype they have in their head of how Indian women should act, I feel less safe bringing my Singaporean identity, what feels like my authentic self, to those interactions.

It’s also why I want to amplify more voices and celebrate so many more authentic leaders. What can you do to encourage and celebrate someone else’s authenticity today?


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page