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The role of authenticity in leadership: listen and engage

Let’s get clear about what it means to lead: it’s “an influence-based relationship” (Kouzes & Posner). To influence we must bring our authentic self: genuine, approachable, actively engaged with others, the ability to listen to hear rather than listening to respond. This is different from charismatic, which leads to potentially harmful influence, and was addressed in a previous blog. The role of a leader, is to influence team members so they can:

  • engage with the Mission/Vision,

  • get team members excited about collectively helping the organization meet its goals, and

  • ensure that the needs of team members are met by removing barriers and providing necessary tools and resources.

Best and most simply defined, authentic leaders invert the traditional top-down pyramid and hold up or support the organization from the bottom rather than impose information from the top down.

Most notable and most missing in our organizations today are 1) relationships between leaders and team members and 2) active engagement and presence with team members. Once we have professional relationships our lines of communication become more open and fluid and team members become more engaged in the group rather than simply self-interests. Active engagement means that leaders are present. They:

  • are out and about,

  • acknowledge team members,

  • may even know something personal about them,

  • ask questions, and

  • understand the fundamentals of the work.

Being present ensures that leaders are experiencing the same events as team members are, and working side-by-side removes the cultural barriers that limit communication. Even better, the leader has a much better understanding of the day-to-day operations. Suddenly, culture becomes very real, as a “leader” is now dependent upon others for answers and support. We increase trust and we are less likely to break rapport with one another in high-relationship cultures.

Steps to take to increase your authenticity

Remove your leader name badge and get out of the office! At some point in each day, spend 30 minutes in the organization: move around and perform some minor duties, walk with people, inquire about them as people, ask how they can be of assistance, who can be thanked for doing good work, what resources are needed. Experience and observation are far superior ways of collecting information. This is especially the case in a toxic workplace culture where it is generally not safe to share or open up.

Most of our team members who are the closest to the work, have the answers – listen to what they have to say. Develop some working sessions, in which team members, not other managers, can be involved in solving a unique or persistent challenge. An authenticity primer:

This is usually very challenging in a highly managed (top down structure) or toxic organization. In such, the culture generally does not encourage employee to executive interactions. If this is the case, I would advise an executive level leader to remove their suit and tie and dress like an employee. Further, don’t show up with an entourage, and engage with team members! Start the conversation, introduce yourself, ask some questions and get to know your team members. Finally, as executives walk through the hallways of their organizations, stop and chat with team members. Recall a previous conversation, inquire about their weekend, their interests, their families. Too often, executive leaders move quickly through the halls and do not provide even the slightest acknowledgement to employees, or worse yet expect to be cheerfully greeted first. Be sure to share equally however, as putting forth personal information about yourself is a part of the vulnerability that makes authentic leadership work.

Your team members will share with you once they feel that leaders can be trusted, and that there is a high quality exchange. Engagement, and data collection, does not have to be difficult, like most organizations tend to make it. If you want authenticity within your organization, Begin from Within! Ask for ideas, get feedback, and be open to all ideas! Here are five steps you can take to become a more active and authentic leader:

  1. Consider each idea carefully and provide a solid explanation if you’re not able to do something

  2. Ask team members to be part of a committee working to address a persistent challenge

  3. Use good change management practices to communicate changes and/or any ideas that were not considered

  4. Find ways to celebrate employee contributions. At one point, responsible for leadership development and employee engagement, we started Innovation Awards, where all innovative and creative ideas were recognized and celebrated quarterly.

  5. Get out and be present! The more present and authentic you show up as a leader, the more others will engage with you!

What will you do tomorrow?

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