Being an authentic organisation

Last month, we talked about Being your authentic self. In short, it’s about being who you are and being comfortable with that.

Authenticity can apply to organisations as well as individuals, particularly as we move further towards a world that’s run by technology. The danger is that the workplace becomes an impersonal environment that ignores the emotional and social needs we have as human beings.

How can you create a culture that embraces technology and enables people to be their authentic selves? This month’s article comprises two complementary ideas about how to be an authentic organisation.

One perspective

This TED Talk by Tim Leberecht explores 4 ways to build a human company in the age of machines.


Here are the four aspects he recommends you pay attention to, with my commentary added:

Do the unnecessary

So much of what we do is about making the organisation really efficient. Everyone has too much work. We are constantly having to prioritise, and cut things out.

The trouble is that we cut out all the niceties. We don’t have time to do the things that are ‘nice’ to do, because we’re so focused on doing the things we ‘need’ to do.

Rather than just cutting things out, you need to allow yourself time and space to explore and create new things.  Allow time to talk and let the mind wander (and wonder) – this is the root of creativity, and who knows where it could lead to?

Create intimacy

In an organisational context, ‘intimacy’ refers to the relationships and bonds between people.

A few years ago, there was a trend to having a maximum of eight direct reports and five layers between the CEO and the most junior employee.

It will always be necessary to have some sort of hierarchy, but I’m now seeing organisations move towards creating more fluid structures. For example, scrum teams and communities where employees come together to work on something specific before disbanding.

A looser hierarchy creates equality, which is an opportunity to increase intimacy.  If you are a leader or a member of such a team, use it to encourage people to speak about themselves personally – for example, their hopes and wishes by being on the team. What do they want to learn from being on this team? How would they like the team to work together? By focusing on the personal and not just the professional, you’re more likely to increase the bonds. When we bond, we commit.

Be ugly

Rather than always trying to present a polished face to the world, it’s important to speak the truth. Say it how it is, including the stuff that might not be pretty.

Create a culture where people can keep asking questions and call out the ‘ugly’ stuff. An important element here is psychological safety.

Remain incomplete

Stop striving for things to be perfect and finished, and accept that everything constantly iterates and evolves. Nowadays, you have to embrace the potential of remaining incomplete.

You may find this uncomfortable if your personality likes structure and closure. You’ll just have to learn to be OK with incompleteness!

For more information about being a learning organisation, please see my previous articles:

Another perspective

While I was researching this article, I also found this useful model.

Professor Rob Goffee of London Business School co-authored a book with Gareth Jones called Why should anyone be led by you?  In it, they talk about why employee engagement in organisations is continuing to drop, and make a central recommendation that you should ‘Be yourself more, with skill’.

They identified a challenge in that, whilst executives liked the idea, they said: “I can only be myself if I work for an authentic organisation”. To explore this in more detail, they wrote a followup book Why should anyone work here?

When asked to describe their ideal organisation, the most talented employees referred to six things:

  • “I want to work somewhere I can be myself”
  • “I want to know what is going on within the organisation”
  • “I want to develop and become more skilled”
  • “I want to work somewhere I’m proud of”
  • “I want my job to be meaningful”
  • “I want to work somewhere I’m not drowning in bureaucracy”

As a result, the authors developed the DREAMS model:

  • Difference: While organisations must have a certain level of conformity, such as shared values, they need to be open-minded about behaviours, so people can express themselves freely. Allow them to be who they are, and speak up in a way that works for them. When they feel free to do this, they will commit more.
  • Radical honesty: As with Tim’s ‘speak the truth’ recommendation above, people want to know what’s going on. Social media has increased the trend towards transparency, openness and honesty, but also a distorting of the truth. So share as much as you can (while recognising that some things can’t be shared). These days, there is so much information out there, that if you don’t share stuff, someone else will. People will then get their news about your business from someone else, and it might not be presented the way you would want.
  • Extra value: Think how all your employees can get value from their work, and give them opportunities to develop. This urge to develop and grow doesn’t just apply to your senior people; it’s important to train your employees at all levels.
  • Authenticity: This has already been covered above. Organisations need to take their values to heart and exemplify them in everything they do.
  • Meaning: This is not about what you do, it’s why you do it, and links to my article about Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. Organisations should also remember the three Cs:
    • Connection
    • Community
    • Cause
  • Simple rules: Challenge your rules and processes. Do you need them? Can you simplify the level of detail? I’ve worked in organisations that have processes that are succinct and contain the principles of what the process is designed to do, as well as in organisations where a process covers several pages of detail and “what ifs” – no prizes for guessing which organisation was where I felt most empowered and engaged!

What can you do to create a more authentic organisation?

Maybe it will help to think of your organisation like a family. In the best families, people feel safe. They can be who they are, as they are accepted without judgement. Ideally, it’s a place where you can be yourself, and be nurtured.

The family as a whole constantly expands and contracts. Family members grow and evolve together. Families can be a bit messy and ugly. For example, you can eat breakfast in your pyjamas and nobody cares.

If you keep the family metaphor in mind, perhaps you won’t lose sight of your people’s emotional and social needs in place of efficiency and cost-savings.

Next month

With the rise of AI and robotics, all we’ve got left is our humanity. One of my clients acts as guest author next month, to discuss how technology will change the way we work and the skills that will be needed in the future.