Authenticity is one of those buzzwords that used to make me cringe. Various ‘experts’ often used the term, and it felt more like a gimmick than an actual concept I could practice. Authenticity was also most talked about in relation to work, which felt inauthentic. Most people I know from varied backgrounds don’t feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, and for a good reason. In some cases, it could be dangerous. ‘Authenticity at work’ seemed like an oxymoron.
But in the last couple of years, it became clear that the next part of my life must be lived more authentically, especially in work environments. I understand my privilege of not being in dangerous environments, and I needed to honor myself and others by showing up as all of me. Becoming a fully integrated person and embracing all of myself, makes me a better wife, friend, family member, and leader. I started the journey of becoming authentic by looking into my personal journey.
I was raised in the rural South of the United States, where racial integration was slightly taboo. Most of my friends were white, and even though middle and high school were prime times for starting a dating life, my friends and I wouldn’t dare date across racial lines. They were all Christians or Christian adjacent, as was my family, but none of us attended each other’s places of worship. We all liked Southern food, but rarely did we invite each other over to share a meal. We were intelligent and in advanced courses throughout high school, but we didn’t like the same books, activities, or music. I was a part of a friendship group, but our friendships couldn’t deepen against the social backdrop of our city.
There was also the issue of not ‘fitting in’ with the few black kids in my community. They were wary of me, the young black girl who lived in a big house in a white neighborhood, read in the halls, spent time with mostly white kids, and was liked by all (primarily white) teachers. They didn’t consider me ‘black enough,’ and beyond a small stint in middle school, when I was accepted by a couple of black girls who found out I liked ‘trap’ music, other black students had no interest in me.
And then, I went to college and found an even more frustrating truth. I was too different from most students of any racial, ethnic, or social background, and although I loved learning and was liked by professors, my college experience was not as exciting and freeing as I had hoped.
Luckily my parents were pretty strict about dignity. The foundation of my confidence and my ability to thrive in any environment was the idea that I was to treat everyone with respect, value everyone, and do what was right. In turn, they made it clear that I had the right to expect (and sometimes demand) dignity in return. That standard of dignity helped me accept myself even if I wasn’t entirely accepted by the people I encountered. While accumulating life experiences, I found my ‘tribe’ and, as an adult, was embraced for who I am. Unfortunately, not all of my work experiences followed suit, which is why I am doubling down on being authentic at work. It’s time that I started expecting my work environment to embrace me.
Over my lifetime, I have watched my parents make mistakes, course correct, triumph, and grow, all while loving and supporting their children who are doing the same. They are never apologetic about their interests, their blackness and its many forms, their religion, or their expressions of creativity. These two people taught me the power of curiosity and knowledge, the importance of thinking for myself, the magic of music, and the joy of dancing. My parents belong anywhere they are, simply because they are human and have the right to expand into the people they want to be. So do I. So do you.
It’s time we all start to look inward so we can live and do work that reflects who we are. How do we do that? I don’t have all the answers, but I know it starts with learning more about ourselves and practicing what is most authentic to us every day.
How can you reveal more about yourself, harness your gifts and talents, and share more of the real you with your family, friends, and colleagues? Here are some of the ways I started this process.
In the U.S. and Germany (both my homes), it is Black History Month and this month, my goal is to continue reflecting on ways to change workplaces that don't work for everyone.
When reflecting on my own experience as a Black American woman, so much of my life experience is privileged. Just the idea that I, a Black woman from the rural American South, was able to move to Germany and make the transition from an American corporate workplace to a German corporate workplace, without needing to learn the German language and without needing to ‘start over’ in my career, goes to show how nuanced privilege can be.
But when I look at some of the issues faced in the workplace for Black people in America and Black people in Germany, I see some of the same problems, namely the lack of Black and other People of Color in Senior Leadership roles. Although tech startups are booming right here in Berlin and the need for a diverse set of experiences included at the top are needed to create a strong business, the profile of the majority of founders and Senior Leaders is still almost identical.
In a world where technology is developed at what seems like an infinite rate, our options are vaster than ever, so diverse talent included in Senior Leadership to build products and provide services creates a more rich and connected employee and customer experience. But in the workplace system, as in social and political systems, there are flaws, allowing one group of people to emerge as dominant. A dominant group has power and privileges that control the value system and rewards in that particular system. Wherever there is a dominant group (not necessarily the majority), they build the system, run the system, and the system benefits themselves and those who fit their profile. It’s how humans in many places operate in macro and micro terms, which means the behavior could be described as typical, but the effect is far from benign.
The individuals who don’t fit the profile in that system begin to mold into a shape that isn’t their own to contribute their skills. Talented people subdue their authenticity to fit in. When that happens, we lose the richness of the diversity of the individual that we so desperately need in our workplaces. By the time they may be up for the senior promotion (which is rare), they have worked hard to be more like the dominant group profile than themselves.
Our workplaces need to change to send the message that no one has to mold themselves into a model to be valued and that development and leadership are not only for a select few who are more alike than different.
But how do we change the workplace system to send that message? I think we start with the basics of dignity and build our systems, programs, policies, and processes from there. Anywhere along our journey, when we interact with human beings (advertising to customers, providing customer service, giving feedback to employees, working in teams), we include as many voices as needed to ensure we have considered the best way to value, respect, and treat that person or group of people ethically.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) fits perfectly into a system built on dignity. This work becomes the next stepping stone, codifying dignity and ensuring all experiences are respected and included in the system at different job levels and across functions.
Building systems based on dignity also allows us to create clear values with the corresponding behaviors (with accountability) so DEIB work is not superficial or in vain. If we say we respect you, we learn how to pronounce the names of our colleagues correctly. If we say we value you, we don’t build systems that lack transparency which helps to create inequities. If we treat everyone ethically, we don’t make or sell products that are culturally appropriated.
Someone once said to me that when you are the person in the room that people listen to, you have the power at that moment, which means it is your job to adjust to your audience. That is because the person with the most power or influence in the room sets the tone. For anyone in that position, that tone should be rooted in dignity. That tone should be about including others and opening your mind and heart to learn how your behavior impacts the people you influence. And when people see you embracing who they are and what they represent and not rewarding those who fit themselves into tiny boxes to be like you, you become a leader that is changing a system and you help develop others into leaders that do the same.
Black History Month focuses on the Black experience and highlights the unique and singular experiences of a resilient group of people. It is also about embracing all humans to enrich the world, and how dignity for all humans everywhere changes the systems we operate in.
I am striving to transform workplaces into systems full of dignity for everyone. Won’t you join me?