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Preference & Need

Being authentic in any situation

The silence, which had laid siege to the room, was broken by the gasp that slipped out of my mouth. Our boss was sitting at the head of the table with his eyes wide in disbelief. At the other end, one of our team—the one who had just spoken—sat staring smugly back.

We had just started our team meeting when our colleague cleared his throat, looked right at our boss, and said, “Hey, I’m going to the bathroom. Don’t worry—you can tell me it was a great piece of work when I get back.” As they locked eyes, time seemed to slow down and the rest of us realized we were in the path of an oncoming storm.

After my gasp broke the silence, our colleague got up and sauntered out the door.

. . .

At the time of that incident, I was part of a great team of people who were passionate about our work. However, one of our coworkers had a way of getting things done that caused a lot of tension. He was intelligent, charismatic and incredibly funny, but he used these qualities to get what he wanted through sarcasm, commiseration and undermining others. Trying to keep out of the constant conflicts he created became like a part of the job description. He essentially acted however he felt like acting, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. The interesting thing was that he was legitimately good at the job and really cared. The difficult dynamics he fostered were simply a result of him doing what he thought was right and being his genuine self.

What is right isn’t always what is easy

And that’s the rub: being authentic is crucial, but our authentic selves don’t always match our work environment. Yet our ways of being, even those with a negative impact, are a part of who we are. They can be difficult to change or rein in, and it can feel like we’re being fake when we try. It’s in this conflict—between changing and staying the same—that I’ve found a valuable lesson about balancing preference-based and needs-based authenticity.

This is a challenging topic, as it’s understandable to be concerned about remaining genuine. In fact, an objection to change that I encounter often is that trying new ways of communicating, partnering or leading is inauthentic. I believe the opposite is true. We honour our commitment to being authentic by expanding our ways of being to include more than simply what’s the most natural for us.

In this regard, the way I look at authenticity is two-fold: Preference-based authenticity is about acting from a place of feeling, and needs-based authenticity is about acting from a place of understanding. It’s important to establish that one isn’t right and the other wrong. Furthermore, there’s no need for one to be fully on and the other off. Instead, there should be an ongoing negotiation between the two that enables us to be agile. In short, we should know when to let our feelings guide us and understand how to show up when the situation demands it.

How do we differentiate?

Preference is what feels right and natural and, as a result, it’s what we prefer to do. For some of us, this aligns with what’s needed by our work environment. For others, there’s a minor misalignment, but operating from a place of preference is fine if there’s some flexibility in the work culture. However, for those with a larger misalignment, preference can create difficulties and be counterintuitive or even hazardous.

It’s here that preference can limit our vision, diminish our understanding and restrict our growth. It keeps us locked in our comfort zone and old ways of thinking about ourselves and others. Yet, resisting our preferences can feel wrong, and I believe we mislabel this discomfort as inauthenticity. I’ve found this mislabeled discomfort used to justify all sorts of ways of being that don’t match what’s needed in the work environment. Specifically, I’ve noticed that audience-centred approaches that are time consuming, uncomfortable and challenging tend to be dismissed as inauthentic.

Need is what’s required for the best outcome. As an example: if we hired a carpenter, and they showed up with just a hammer, we’d be concerned. We know a hammer can do a lot of things, but it has limits. So, we’d rightfully expect them to show up with a full toolbox and be skilled in the use of each tool. If they didn’t have a required tool, we’d expect they would get it and make sure they knew how to use it. Sure, they may still prefer using a hammer, but they wouldn’t hesitate to use a more effective tool.

This is where needs-based authenticity comes in. I define it as understanding the situation, and going beyond our preferences to meet our audience where they’re at. It’s adaptive rather than static. So, we adopt a heightened state of awareness, identify what tools are required to achieve the best outcome and then act with intention.

Expanding this thinking, when we consider needs-based authenticity I believe we can operate on four reasonable expectations from our colleagues and employers:

  1. We should show up with a toolbox of skills. These skills should go beyond the technical to include those needed to effectively and appropriately adapt to the needs of the environment.
  2. If we lack skills, or require new ones as our careers progress, then we should acquire them.
  3. We should use these skills without hesitation when they are required to get the job done.
  4. In turn, we should have the same expectations of others.

Notice the word “should” plays pretty heavily above. We’re all imperfect, and it’s unlikely we’ll always show up the best way in every situation. Yet, it’s crucial that we be accountable for ensuring our preference doesn’t become a barrier for others to navigate in the workplace. Our ability to do this is linked to our willingness to learn new skills and expand our way of thinking. In this regard, I believe anything, as long as it doesn’t cross our moral or ethical boundaries, can become authentic. Through practice, we can make any skill or way of thinking our own. We put our stamp on it, do it in our own way and make it a part of who we are.

How do we progress from here?

Even when we’ve made something our own, it doesn’t mean it’s natural for us. There are many ways of being that will always require effort and intention. However, mastering our ability to bring them forward in a way that’s true to us is what makes them authentic.

To achieve this, I suggest three steps:

  1. Expand our understanding of ourselves, others and our environment. To do this, I recommend a 360 assessment and debriefing the results with a trusted mentor.
  2. Identify what preferences, if any, are of concern and what skills and ways of thinking need development. This will require support in the form of a class, a coach or an internal work resource to provide guidance and feedback.
  3. Commit to focus on the outcome, not the moment. Finding satisfaction in the moment is the playground of misaligned preference. Instead, anticipate the best outcome for all involved, then act in a manner that encourages that outcome.

. . .

Back to our team member—now we can see that he was being authentic, but from a place of misaligned preference. So, although he got a lot done, how he went about doing it created an atmosphere of tension and distrust. He didn’t set out to be difficult to work with, but by letting his misaligned preference guide his actions he became so. You may be thinking that situation was pretty tame, and without the context it is. However, in my next post I’ll discuss how ineffective communication turned “That’s a great piece of work” into a real knock.