Authenticity is considered an essential trait for modern business leaders, but being an authentic leader is often oversimplified to just being yourself. We’re told throughout our lives that being ourselves is the key to happiness and professional success, but amid the countless pressures managers face in a constantly changing business environment, the “just be yourself” (JBY) approach can actually lead to disastrous results.
And yet, numerous studies show that authenticity is a professional advantage. Some would even say it’s “the gold standard for leadership.” So how do you achieve authenticity at work if it’s not as simple as JBY?
For starters, authentic leaders understand that they aren’t perfect and tend to view themselves as works in progress. They’re not afraid to admit ignorance and take advice from others, and they tend to actively seek out help and guidance for improving their inner lives—including their character, values, and mindset.
They inspire trust among those they lead because their actions are aligned with the values they espouse.
Unfortunately, these sorts of leaders are relatively rare, given the fact that less than half of employees fully trust their bosses. However, if you want to be counted among the trustworthy minority, here are three things you need to stop doing to achieve your own version of authentic leadership.
1. Using the same leadership style in every situation
If you’re JBYing in an effort to be authentic, then you likely approach every situation with the same leadership style, never deviating from the one that fits your personal preference. Not only does this not aid in your efforts to be authentic, but it also reduces your effectiveness. In the business world, you’re presented with many different challenges, and you’ll be most successful if you adapt the way you lead accordingly. Don’t fret: Being flexible doesn’t make you inauthentic or a poor leader. In fact, the best leaders can tailor their behavior based on the people they’re working with and their particular objective at a given time.
For instance, you might take a coaching leadership approach with an employee who is no longer a newbie but may need more information about your industry or additional guidance. And you might take a pace-setting leadership approach with another employee who seems to thrive on recognition and rewards but struggles with burnout. Steve Jobs often put on his coaching leadership hat when he gave designer teams feedback on their prototypes. He left designers to do their jobs but popped in occasionally to challenge and guide them.
Writing about leaders and their coaching styles, Stephanie Peskett, senior vice president and partner at consulting company BTS, said, “Unfortunately, far too many misunderstand how to develop their workers. Instinctually, they want to help and coach. But they make errors such as waiting until annual reviews to provide guidance or just telling people what to do instead of encouraging them to find answers.”
2. Being a completely open book
If you’re taking a JBY approach to leadership, you might be tempted to be a completely open book to your team. And it’s true that your employees value transparency. In fact, most people in your life probably do. Transparency fosters trust, which might be the most important ingredient in almost any relationship. Show your colleagues that you value and trust them by keeping them updated on important strategic initiatives, the health of the company, and your vision for the future.
That doesn’t mean you should always be forthcoming with whatever information people want from you, however. Revealing half-formed plans or deals that may or may not come to fruition benefits no one. If your colleagues need to know something, tell them. But rather than being an open book to anyone who asks you anything, consider the right timing and medium for your message.
3. Prioritizing chitchat
If you’re JBYing, you might be tempted to increase your water cooler time with team members. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. After all, getting to know your employees can be extremely rewarding as well as beneficial to employee engagement. But keep in mind that getting to know your team is about the quality of your interactions rather than the quantity of them. In other words, you don’t need to engage in more small talk to be an authentic leader.
Likewise, it doesn’t mean you need to schedule more happy hours and companywide outings or get chummy at the annual holiday party. Instead, focus on building relationships that are based on listening to your employees’ needs and ideas. If they feel heard, they’ll want to contribute. Otherwise, they’ll want to find a new job—and their decision to leave won’t be impacted by your lack of water cooler chitchat. Schedule regular check-in meetings and let your employees control the agenda. And when employees are talking to you, make eye contact and avoid the numerous digital distractions at your fingertips.
The best leaders don’t just show up to work and “be themselves” to win over employees and overcome complex business challenges. It may sound paradoxical, but authentic leadership takes years to master and lots of deliberate practice. At the same time, it requires avoiding traps like the three above, which may appear to cultivate authenticity but actually do the opposite.