Advocating for Responsible Authenticity
in Our Interactions at Work
Have you ever had a colleague who got under your skin, in a bad way? I was that colleague for one woman – let’s call her Anne.
Once, during a heated exchange, Anne fervently (some might say “angrily”) asked me not to “Crucial Conversations” her. (Crucial Conversations is a trademarked communications strategy that helps leaders speak kindly, directly and transparently with others. I’ve been a Certified Crucial Conversations Trainer since 2006.)
I was taken aback for just a moment, then made the split-second decision to match her approach and attack just as she was attacking me. I raised my voice, let my emotions spill out, and went round and round with her; she fought back.
I hadn’t done that with a coworker for a long time. I thought it might feel good to let loose like that, and in all honesty, it did, kind of like putting on sweat pants and sweatshirt after a long day in a suit. But the relief was short lived, because as the conversation went on, I found myself getting tired. I just wanted it to be over. I gave up and we ended the conversation not really accomplishing anything.
A couple of weeks later, I met with Anne on a different subject, and as that topic wound down, she brought up our previous conversation. My guard was already because of that previous conversation, and now more so. She described situations in her past that caused her to equate her confrontational behavior, tone of voice and overall approach with being authentic. In her mind, authenticity required a blunt and direct approach. To Anne, using skills like those I teach in Crucial Conversations training came across as inauthentic, and, as she said, “phony.”
That time, I made the wiser choice to not engage in a fight, and instead, I attempted to remain curious. I asked questions to clarify what I heard. I also explained how my upbringing had included the blunt and direct approach, and that I had spent many years learning how NOT to use that way of communicating as an adult in order to reduce what I perceived as a cost to that approach. I found myself being more authentic when I took the curious approach by getting my thoughts and perceptions across without bluntness or anger.
For leaders seeking to be authentic in their communications, this is an ongoing dilemma: does authenticity require expressing how we’re truly feeling, even if that includes a generous dose of unfiltered anger or vented frustration? On the contrary, are we being authentic when we employ learned tactics to manage our emotions in order to remain calm and curious?
Somewhere there is a middle ground of Responsible Authenticity – a balanced approach that neither denies our very human emotions nor forces them on others. An option that allows us to remain curious of the perspective of others, while feeling the freedom to hold our own opinions strongly. In my first conversation with Anne, I failed to find that balance.
Was either one of us more authentic than the other? Was either approach wrong? I don’t know. I do know Anne’s approach put me on guard, and perhaps that is what she wanted: to put me on notice about how she addressed issues. What I wanted to say to her is, “But at what cost?” I had a choice about how I wanted to interact with her, and I had to ask myself the same question, “But at what cost?”
Maybe therein was my answer: I had a choice. I had a choice about how to demonstrate my authenticity, as did she, and I had a choice about the cost I was willing to accept, for myself and for the relationship. In the end, I chose not to engage in her aggression, and to create boundaries for our conversations so I could recognize when the cost became too high for me. So I could trust myself to remain responsibly authentic, without pushing past my boiling point. And with that choice, I remained authentic to myself.
Teresa Oliszewicz is the Director of Organizational Development for the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System (UI Health), and a doctoral student with the PhD program in values-driven leadership, for senior executives. Find more on the program at www.cvdl.org/doctorate.