The Softer Side of Performance: Authenticity

Business performance is elevated when a strong foundation for leadership is established and fostered. This seems obvious but it’s surprising how often we find in workshops, that the session we are leading is the first time the leadership team have all been in the same room. There are times when this is totally understandable, for instance when a new CEO or MD has taken the seat and is reconfiguring his or her team. But it’s also a common phenomenon in both public and private sectors and on large capital projects, that the leadership team have not dedicated the time to powerfully formulate themselves in a way that is a match for the challenge. And as you know, the bigger the challenge, the more galvanized the leadership team needs to be.

If you’re committed to producing unprecedented business results, in our view, it pays to focus attention on deliberately forging strong foundations among the leaders who are accountable for producing the results. Those bonds need to be sufficient to withstand the myriad and robust challenges that are almost certainly coming your way.

So what does ‘formulating a leadership team’ look like? There are several aspects that we would say are critical, but because some of them tend to be in what might be considered the ‘softer side of performance’ they are often overlooked or deemed unimportant. But we would offer an alternative view - that there’s a cache of organizational performance value here. You could think of it in terms of the Four A’s: Authenticity, Accomplishment, Appreciation and Acknowledgment. Of course there’s plenty more required for a strong leadership team, but for the purpose of this blog, I’m going to focus on those aspects that are easily overlooked.

Let’s start with authenticity. It’s easy as a concept, but a little more difficult to put into practice. Everyone knows that being authentic is a good thing, but how many of us are willing to say what’s really going on for us in the background? As a leader, it takes something to deliberately create an environment where people are willing to be authentic.

What’s the access to authenticity? Listening. You may have done listening exercises that demonstrate the power that listening has on a person speaking. If you did, you’ll likely remember that when people aren’t listening, you just shut up, and the only conversation that’s going on is the one in your head! The same thing happens in an environment of judgment and criticism. We get defensive, careful, constrained. That’s not an environment that brings out the best in people, and it’s people who are going to deliver the unprecedented business results. So the freer they are to express themselves authentically, the better.

Consider an executive team that we are currently working with; all are extremely committed, hardworking and conscientious people, but most of them had lost their joie de vivre at work. I think it’s fair to characterize this team as a group of individuals who operated well in their functional areas, and with varying degrees of frustration at being able to effect change in their organization. They had the experience of having to defend themselves, and being alone with their accountabilities, responsibilities and challenges.

It’s not that they weren’t producing some highly effective results, they were. But their experience at work was one of being alone in a relentless and thankless environment, producing the next result, yet criticized for a minor error embedded in otherwise strong performance. For some on the team, they were so disenchanted they had one foot out the door.

What was missing? Team; the experience of being heard, of their colleagues having their back. They had, over time, adapted to maintaining silence, to not sharing what was going on for them. There was no team, just hard working individuals.

In the session we led with this executive team, we deliberately grounded all the conversations in generous listening and having people recreating what each other said. To get at the heart of the matter, we had asked this executive team to come to a session having re-read and considered the impact of our article Radical Listening, Less Talk More Leadership, and having taken time to consider all their grievances, prepared to share authentically, with no 'sanitizing'. The intention was that each person have the experience of being heard, or ‘gotten’.

In the environment of being listened to generously, people were able to say what had been in the background that they hadn’t felt free to share, or that hadn’t been heard by others in the team, and what emerged through the courage to be authentic, was a profound respect for each person in the room that I found moving.

Take a moment to consider for yourself:

  • Do people in your organization or team say what’s really going on?
  • Where would elevated authenticity make a difference for you and your team?
  • What would it make possible if your team elevated their capacity to be authentic?
  • What actions would you need to take to make this possible?

With our client, the authenticity created the beginning of a new relationship amongst the team, a foundation on which they are now continuing to build a new culture; one that will cascade throughout the organization. A culture based on authenticity, accomplishment, appreciation and acknowledgment, those aspects that bring joy to the human spirit.