Neil Gupta

Authenticity at Work

902 words • 4 minutes to read

We often talk about being authentic at work. But what does that even mean? Why do these discussions always turn into group therapy sessions without an actionable outcome? I think it’s because we don’t have the vocabulary to truly talk about the problem.

To make progress, we first need to understand that there are 3 types of authenticity: cognitive, affective, and conative.

Cognitive Authenticity

Cognition deals with what we know and prefer to work on (our skills).

At work, we are obviously expected to bring our cognitive self, as this is what we’re explicitly interviewed and hired for. Ideally, you are hired to work on things you know how to do or have the expertise to learn quickly. However, if you try to do something completely outside of your skillset and you don’t have the resources or capacity to learn it quickly, your performance will obviously suffer. Similarly, if you are way overqualified for a job and bored, your performance will also suffer. In both cases, you are not allowed to be authentic to your cognitive self.

Fortunately, a reasonable lack of cognitive authenticity is usually the easiest to fix by either learning the new skill necessary for the job or switching roles to match your existing skills. Companies often fail here when they are unable to adjust their hiring process for the actual role they need, usually ending up with lots of overqualified and bored people, or conversely, hire too quickly and let their hiring bar fall.

Interview vs Job

Affective Authenticity

Affectivity deals with how we feel at work (our emotions), whether that’s personal (what’s happening at home?) or professional (do you disagree with the company’s mission?)

Most discussions about authenticity focus on allowing us to bring our affective side to work by asking us to be vulnerable. This is important for sure and we should strive to create safe environments at work that allow people to share how they are feeling.

Why? Because when people trust their team to protect them when they are down, they will also put in the effort and go the extra mile for their team when necessary.

Unfortunately, this is trickier to identify, since most of us are socialized to hide our feelings (especially at work), so you may not know that someone is being emotionally inauthentic when they are smiling and acting positive even if they might be suffering internally. Take the time to get to know people and create space for them to open up. This may sound like a waste of energy at first when there’s work to be done, but will pay dividends in the future.

Conative Authenticity

Conation deals with how we do the work (our process), including our preferred work styles and natural instincts when solving problems.

This is the least discussed and understood, but in my opinion, the most interesting and impactful one. We should all be focused on how we can be conatively authentic at work because it has the potential to 10x our productivity and happiness. It is also the most likely source of inauthenticity at work, directly causing untold losses.

Every person has a different conative profile. For example, do you prefer to create structure around how you’re going to solve a problem first, or do you find structure limiting? Do you prefer to absorb any available data to understand the whole picture as the first step, or do you prefer to dive-in and figure it out as you go? These are all valid work styles with different pros and cons, but when your team’s culture or manager’s style doesn’t match your’s, you will burn a lot of willpower to try to fit in and be exhausted, and you won’t even understand why.

If you hate structure but are forced to work in a highly structured environment, you are not going to be productive. Likewise, if you are not interested in researching all of the data, being asked to read all the client briefs instead of summaries will deplete your energy. If your brain is constantly thinking of new approaches to things, maintaining old legacy software will take more energy than for someone who naturally prefers maintaining consistency in their life. If we don’t understand our own and each other’s instinctive styles, we cannot efficiently assign the right tasks to the right people, thus wasting everyone’s energy. The best teams have a diversity of conative profiles and recognize their differences as strengths so they can lean on each other’s pros and mask each other’s cons, but understanding each other’s styles and allowing people to be conatively authentic is the first step to harnessing that extra superpower.

Unfortunately this is not an easy problem, hence why it is the least discussed and understood dimension. The Kolbe A index is a good starting point for understanding your conative profile, but it’s still not great… more thoughts on this later!

We need authenticity in all 3 dimensions to be truly authentic to ourselves. A failure to be authentic in any of the dimensions for too long will eventually lead to either burn-out or bore-out, and plenty of lost productivity in the meantime. This is an important problem worth solving, but let’s get our vocabulary right first. Without an understanding of what authenticity even is, how can we possibly hope to even discuss it appropriately?

Written on July 31, 2023 in Chicago.