Is it possible to be authentic at work?
Before becoming self-employed I spent much of my career trying to behave like a proper grown up professional. I tried to be like everyone else. Overthinking and second guessing just became a part of my job. I didn’t always feel like I fitted in, like I belonged, like I was safe. I kept my ideas to myself, worried about seeming like I was a fool for asking questions and didn’t enjoy the job. At all.
Yet, in a couple of organisations I did feel like I was able to be my weird and wonderful self. I could take some risks, ask questions and make decisions based on my own judgement. This happened when I felt safe, when I had a manager who trusted me and a team where we were all working towards the same mission. I noticed the difference between the two scenarios. We all enjoyed working together, we had great ideas and got loads done.
This concept was coined by Organisational Scientist Amy Edmondson as “Team Psychological Safety”. It is defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” That you wouldn’t be ridiculed for asking questions, shot down when putting forward ideas or suggesting improvements. Your manager and colleagues had your back.
The benefits of Psychological Safety are well researched - greater innovation, productivity, higher profit, less absence, happier and more engaged employees. So there is a real business case for creating teams that are psychologically safe. So… where’s the disconnect?
Our standard hierarchical model for organisations is a “Power over” model where there is a manager and an employee. The manager is in control. They set the agenda, make the decisions, and ensure that the employee is productive and is behaving (or if not, they ‘performance manage’ them - AKA scare them into getting back on track). It’s all about fear and dominance. This really isn’t the best for the employee to feel safe.
When you have a manager who understands these dynamics and they’re conscious about sharing power through collaboration and building trusted relationships, they recognise that if you empower someone to be able to shape their own world, this is when the magic (as it were) happens. When you’re treated like a grown-up, an equal, with valuable ideas and strengths and the freedom to take a risk, make decisions, and build solid relationships with your colleagues, it makes work so much better. You can spend less time worrying what others may think and be free to be your authentic self.