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My (mimic) octopus teacher – How to build authenticity at work

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of authenticity at work. It’s a key element of my whole-person approach to creating human-centred workplaces.

I was rootling through some old pictures of the time I was doing reef conservation work in the Philippines and came across a video I took of an amazing mimic octopus. It seemed the perfect metaphor for the impact of being a shape shifter when we’re at work, rather than showing up fully as ourselves.

Truly extraordinary creatures, it’s estimated they can mimic up to 30 different  animals as a way to hide themselves from potential predators. It’s a heck of a survival strategy to literally shape shift at will. Some might say the perfect way to fit in.

The video made me think about the times we become shape shifters at work, devaluing our own authentic selves in order to fit in. It’s a survival strategy too, but ultimately one for which we pay a huge price.

When we act inauthentically, even unintentionally, we can lose touch with ourselves, get stuck in jobs and organisations that aren’t aligned to our values, feel lonely and disconnected, and even go so far as to demolish our self-esteem and sense of worth.

Imagine how that impacts on performance and happiness at work.

How to be an authentic leader

As a leader, encourage authenticity at work by creating space for employees to flourish and grow just as they are. Creating non-judgemental spaces where people can express themselves can still be done within the boundaries of decency and professionalism.

Employees who show up as their whole selves at work will be more engaged, which in turn fires up productivity and is likely to increase loyalty as well.  

Encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work makes people more comfortable. We do our best work when we’re relaxed rather than stressed out. It allows us to push boundaries, and for different opinions to be heard. Breakthroughs in thinking arise, creating new opportunities.

Celebrating authenticity, allowing quirkiness, encouraging people to share their home life interests at work builds deeper bonds between people, more trust, and opens up conversations. That makes for a more creative and innovative workplace, one where different perspectives are welcomed, which also helps reduce blind spots.

It’s also good for the bottom line. Customers and colleagues quickly recognise when someone is being fake, and loss of trust can spiral up surprisingly fast.

As a leader, you can demonstrate your own authenticity through sharing your own story, especially the challenges you’ve faced and overcome, or difficult times you’ve gone through. It makes you more relatable as a person, and shows your own humanity. It helps build rapport with your team, grows empathy and helps people find common ground – the strongest basis for connection and cooperation that we have. 

Trust then comes, which helps us get through challenging times, and makes it more likely employees will ‘go the extra mile’ when needed, knowing they’re recognised and valued. Feeling valued at work is a priceless commodity.

In psychology, the self that ‘runs us’ according to the conditioning we’ve received from society (the conditioning makes us fit into society, into good citizens, into good workers) is known as the Adaptive Self. It’s separate from our Authentic Self – the person we are deep down when we’re able to connect to that.

Our Adaptive Self has a very important role to play, in making us ‘acceptable’ in society, ensuring we follow the rules, behave in socially acceptable ways, and function well in the society in which we find ourselves.

However, if the Adaptive Self becomes all that we have, then we can find ourselves stuck with feelings of emptiness, life becoming meaningless, and this is why we need a connection to our Authentic Self as well.

Being authentic is about showing up as who we actually are. Which means knowing who we are in the first place.

The root of authenticity is knowing what we care about and getting in touch with our own feelings and needs. My own experience of the corporate world was spending many years living from the neck up. Constantly thinking, planning and doing, but not really feeling anything much. It’s quite hard to be fully authentic when you can’t really feel anything.

Ways to Build Authenticity at work

If it’s you who feels as though you’re putting on an act all the time, bending yourself out of shape to meet the norm at work, here’s a few ways you can start to reclaim your authenticity.

  • Get in touch with your feelings by doing this simple Palming Exercise
    • Sitting quietly, feet flat on the floor
    • Rub your hands briskly together until they become warm from the friction
    • Then gently place them over your eyes (remove glasses first if you’re wearing them)
    • Feel the warmth of the heat going into your eyes and relaxing them
    • Take 3-4 deep breaths and as you do so, ask yourself “what do I notice right now?” (this might be feelings, body sensations, tension, anything that helps you feel more connected to your body and to what it’s telling you, whether that’s tension that says you need to get up and move around; difficult feelings that relate to a conversation you had earlier in the day…)
    • Sometimes this exercise can be uncomfortable to do as it pushes us into places close to our edge, the places that we often want to avoid, but it really does help us reconnect to ourselves and what’s important to us
  • Start to distinguish between the thoughts and actions of your Adaptive Self and your Authentic Self by taking a step back and observing your thinking and behaviour. Over time you’ll start to be able to identify those that feel like they ‘belong’ to you, compared to those that seem to be coming from an outside influence
  • Think back to your childhood and teenage years. A lot of our conditioning comes from how we were brought up, including the culture we’re from. Take time to notice when you’re living out cultural or societal values and ways of being in a non-critical way. Ask yourself if those ideas are actually true for you personally. This isn’t about throwing out everything you’ve learned that helps you function well in society, but rather about being discerning about which of those ideas and values you want to take on and embody
  • Be conscious about the decisions you make. It’s easy to go on autopilot. Slow down, take a few deep breaths and feel what the right decision is for you. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into making big decisions without having time to allow the decision and potential options to percolate first, gently allowing ‘what feels right’ (you might call it a gut feeling) to arise in its own time
  • Finally, authenticity only grows in the presence of self-love. We need to allow ourselves to be ourselves without beating ourselves up for not being like everybody else. It’s our uniqueness that makes us valuable. Bringing compassion to yourself is key to recognising the power of our uniqueness

If you’d like to find out more about how to create a whole-person culture in your organisation, a true human-centred workplace, you can find out more about my approach here, or please do get in touch for a chat.

P.S. If you’d like to see a video of the mimic octopus doing its thing, I’ve shared one here from my time in the Philippines.