Has HR been getting ‘authenticity’ all wrong? (Part 2)

Yesterday associate professor, Billy Adamsen, rubbished the narrative that staff should be encouraged to present their ‘authentic self’ at work. Today Ritu Bhasin responds:

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Jan 9, 2024

Anyone who read yesterday’s interview with Billy Adamsen, associate professor and head of talent lab at Zealand Academy of Technology & Business, Denmark, can be forgiven for feeling a little bit shocked.

Going firmly against the grain, Adamsen argued that the popular HR narrative of employees needing to bring their ‘authentic selves’ to work [with HR needing to facilitate a culture that supports this] is – for want of a better word, bunkum.

You cannot be your authentic self at work, because work isn’t a private sphere,” he declared. “It [the workplace] has different norms of behavior, and sets expectations of people where the requirement is that they adapt to them,” he continued. He added: “People can’t be themselves at work – they need a ‘work identity’.”

By this, he suggests employees almost have to ‘act-the-part’ at work – that is they need to conform to an identity that the workplace requires of them. It’s an identity which might not be who they are themselves, but that’s just the way it has to be – and one that actually protects them against stress.

This is because their ‘work identity’ gives employees the parameters they need to ‘switch off’ and refuse to do more work and revert back to their ‘outside work identity’.

Of course, at a time when employees have an ever-widening view about what their identity actually means, Adamsen’s notion that they need to suppress who they are to fit in at work will not rub comfortably with those that advocate workplaces should be places that proudly showcase, and encourage the displaying of people’s differing backgrounds, heritages and life experiences.

So is he right, or is he wrong?

Yesterday we framed Adamsen’s interview around questioning whether HR has been getting ‘authenticity’ wrong, and whether his alternative viewpoint is one that has currency.

Today we turn to Ritu Bhasin, award-winning speaker, CEO and founder of bhasin consulting inc, a global diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consulting firm. She’s also the author of the best-selling book ‘The Authenticity Principle’ and is a passionate advocate for living and leading authentically.

We explained Adamsen’s arguments, and thought it would be good to get her views:

Q: You’ve seen what Billy Adamsen has to say about the myth of staff being able to bring their authentic self to work. What’s your initial response?

A: “On the one hand, I don’t disagree in full, because yes, it’s often the case that employees simply can’t be who they are at work because there is significant pressure on them to conform in a certain way. But I would argue there is a way employees can address this.”

Q: Adamsen says staff just have to give in to this pressure, so why do you think they shouldn’t?

A: “If we look at what authenticity means – which I define as the consistent practice of knowing who you are, embracing it as much as possible, and bringing this to others to unlock engagement and productivity – then I would say that it is currently very difficult to be who you are at work because of biases and judgements that come their way. I would argue that rather than succumb and accept the status quo; employees are best advised to leverage what I call the ‘Three Selves’ model.

Q: Do explain!

A: “It’s my belief that each of us have ‘three selves’ – what I call our ‘Performing Self’, our ‘Adapted Self’ and our ‘Authentic Self’. They sit along a spectrum of disempowerment at one end (the ‘performing self’) to empowerment at the other (the ‘authentic self’). Our true ‘authentic self’ is who we are at our core, and it’s a reflection of our values, beliefs, needs, desires, thoughts, emotions, and traits. It’s how someone would behave if they didn’t fear the consequences of their behaviors. At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘performing self’ – which tallies with what Adamsen seems to be saying. Here, one is putting out a curated image of who they are. It often feels humiliating to do this, because it puts pressure on that person to change almost everything about themselves – how they dress, do their hair, how they emote, and so on. Over time this starts having a negative effect on people. When people feel they are constantly unable to be who they are, it literally leads to auto-immune conditions. “

Q: So…are you proposing the third option – the adapted self?

“Yes. This is a concept that hasn’t really been considered or studied much, but it’s the ‘middle self’ – where that person recognizes they can’t be 100% authentic all of the time, but in this adapted self scenario, it’s the person who willingly chooses that they may need to adapt to meet the needs required of them at that moment, or the needs of others around them – such as to meet performance metrics, or to improve team dynamics. It might be that they need to adjust their style so others feel connected to their approach. For instance, if one’s natural way is to be introverted, they might need to push themselves out of that temporarily to help themselves or others in a work situation.”

Q: So is the key here simply that employees need to feel like it’s they that are in control here, and making a choice rather than feel like a behavior is forced on them?

A: “Exactly. The adapted self is being cogniscant of your surroundings. Things go wrong when people are pushed down into a performing self route without a feeling of agency. Empowerment comes from people feeling like they’re in control. If we chose to do something, we feel fine about it.”

Q: But even if staff ‘choose’ their adaptive self, they’re still having to be someone they’re not, so Adamsen is right isn’t he – we can’t truly be ourselves at work?

A: “Choosing a course of action for reasons that it ‘serves me’ is different to having that feeling of having to hide things about oneself. Doing something through fear of judgement is not beneficial. I agree, we do not have ultimate ability to be authentic 100% of the time, but if we cannot be our authentic self as things currently stand, employees need to feel like they are able to be as close to this as is healthy.

Q: “Do you think corporate cultures are more authoritarian than ever, and so how will companies move from having people assume their performing self to adaptive self?

A: “In many ways, I think organizations’ authoritative cultures are getting worse – as is being shown by the demand for people to return to the office. They’re not loosening it through fear and desire for homogeneity.”

Belonging and Leadership expert Ritu Bhasin, is the bestselling author of The Authenticity Principle and award-winning We’ve Got This: Unlocking the Beauty of Belonging.