Companies can no longer be impersonal buildings where employees show up each day, carry out their duties and shut off their brains before going home each night. People aren’t satisfied with simply following procedures and checking boxes. They seek professional fulfillment through engagement, passion and long-term value.
The most successful leaders know that employees want a rewarding work life—an environment that cares for them, values their contributions and gives them a chance to grow. Research consistently confirms that organizational health directly depends on employee satisfaction. When people are unhappy, the company suffers in myriad ways; when employees thrive, the company flourishes. There seem to be no exceptions.
Employees follow leaders who engage and inspire them, relate to them and instill trust. Leaders must be authentic, avoiding deception, contradiction, hidden agendas and ulterior motives.
Leadership experts like Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, have studied how authenticity impacts organizations—and how a lack of it destroys them. Old-school thinking of power-based management, which keeps employees controlled and compliant, has failed. Distant, deceptive and insincere leadership repels people, causing multiple dysfunctions. Only legitimate authenticity works.
Unfortunately, many leaders have yet to grasp what authenticity necessitates and consequently fail to implement it. While authenticity’s facets are broad, its general principles are relatively uncomplicated and well worth the effort to learn and practice.
Branding and leadership expert Anna Crowe outlines four of its key attributes in Get Real: The Power of Genuine Leadership, a Transparent Culture, and an Authentic You (Lioncrest Publishing, 2019):
- Direct communication
- Putting values into action
- Leading with passion
Employees want their leaders to be reliable sources of guidance and support, able to handle an ever-evolving environment with a variety of inputs, viewpoints and choices. They need leaders to adapt to the diversity of their surroundings and, as Crowe puts it, adjust to people’s unique situations.
Being adaptable requires a confident and, ironically, consistent character. Adaptability doesn’t mean being fickle, constantly changing course or bending under pressure. It calls for sticking to principles and plans with consideration, reasonable flexibility and understanding. Being consistent in how you display these traits allows your people to count on you. They know what they’re getting and what to anticipate. Consistent adaptability provides comfort and support, two important ingredients of fulfillment.
Leaders should assess their personalities to gauge their flexibility. A stubborn, prideful spirit clearly isn’t geared for authenticity. A trusted colleague or qualified executive coach can help you objectively determine how adaptive you are. Coaches are trained to guide you through adaptability’s nuances and steer your personality toward this critical mindset.
An adaptable approach fosters trust in challenging times and allows you to be true to yourself. People will know where they stand with you. When leaders put on airs, hide their intentions or contradict themselves, authenticity and trust are compromised. Leaders who remain calm, collected, insightful, understanding and willing to try new ideas demonstrate the trust-building power of adaptability.
Adaptable leaders know how to build unity within their teams. They avoid power games, politics or favoritism. They understand how to pull people into a common effort, pick their battles, make appropriate exceptions, meet urgent needs and make effective changes when necessary. Leaders who maintain the status quo, rigidly cling to rules and fear new approaches show a lack of authenticity, causing employees to hold back their best.
Leaders also gain respect and trust when they adapt to others’ input. Most teams include people with diverse backgrounds, personalities and perspectives, which encourage a wide range of ideas and solutions. Authentically considering what people offer and appreciating their contributions affirm them and add to their sense of fulfillment.
Inauthentic communication is the best way to lose employees’ respect and trust. Dishonesty, mixed messages, inconsistency and unreliability are serious communication weaknesses. They’re noticed quickly and are impossible to hide.
Employees trust leaders who speak clearly and directly. Authentic communication cannot be muddled, confusing or timid. When leaders communicate with purpose, logic, intention and emphasis, people detect authenticity. They trust leaders who cogently convey ideas and account for their audience, which maximizes connection. Speaking as directly as possible delivers the most trustworthy message. People think a leader who hedges or beats around the bush has something to hide and write off communication as inauthentic.
When leaders consistently communicate complete and timely information, people can rely on its authenticity. They know leaders are attempting to benefit everyone. When leaders hold back information for personal or political motives, employees usually discover the deception and develop distrust. Leaders solve communication problems when they recognize that people notice them and form opinions that are difficult to overturn. Seeing yourself from another person’s perspective will motivate you to enhance your approach.
Authentic communication is forged from honesty. Airs and pretenses must be cast aside. Leaders become transparent when they admit to being fallible or poorly informed on a specific topic. Such authenticity is attractive, especially when leaders ask for help. Admitting mistakes reveals a vulnerability that draws people’s admiration and appreciation. As Crowe points out, a leader’s mask severs the connections needed for collaboration and unity.
Leaders who hold themselves accountable to their people earn respect. Making commitments means you must deliver on them. If you’re open to feedback, willing to ask people about their needs, seek ideas for improvement and genuinely listen to feedback, you demonstrate authenticity. Taking action based on this input convinces people you’re authentically interested in their welfare and growth.
Put Your Values into Practice
Successful leaders know that key values set the direction of their organizations. They continuously come back to the fundamental principles that optimize human activity and fulfill their people. Values mean nothing to people unless they’re backed up with action, Crowe emphasizes.
People’s worth is the value most responsible for organizational success. Great leaders regard relationships as their organizations’ lifeblood. People work effectively only when they authentically relate to each other in a culture that promotes relationships. People-centered leaders purposefully relate to their colleagues, superiors and direct reports, thereby setting an example for their teams.
A relationship-oriented culture welcomes workplace diversity, recognizing the advantages of multicultural backgrounds and distinct abilities. Relational leaders put these differences to use, providing employee fulfillment by making sure everyone is included and valued. They respect people for who they are—not only for their technical skills, but for the relationships they cultivate.
Teamwork is critical to maintaining relationships and productivity. We accomplish more when working with blended resources. We are the sum of our parts. Teamwork-centered employees experience greater engagement and fulfillment. If you authentically promote teamwork, you’ll be surprised at the levels to which people can rise.
If you set high goals for your teams, be prepared to provide a commensurate level of assistance. Give of yourself, and clear the way for people to succeed. Demonstrate that you’re willing to sacrifice your own needs to further the team’s goals and accomplishments. Put your people’s needs ahead of self-interest. Employees will do almost anything to please leaders who go out of their way to help them succeed.
Professionalism is yet another value that sets the pace for your workforce. You can have fun and enjoy what you’re doing, but treat situations in mature and intentional ways. Your moral code should reflect authenticity and excellence. Banish negativity and inappropriate behavior, and exemplify a commitment to giving your best. Authentic leaders embody professionalism by walking the walk and not just talking the talk.
Make Passion Contagious
Employees who are passionate about their jobs find fulfillment. Great leaders seek ways to inspire passion in their people. Leaders who make genuine efforts to enhance their employees’ experiences are rewarded with a staff of motivated, productive achievers.
Conversely, inflicting a smothering system of red tape, indecisiveness and apathy kills employees’ interest and efficiency. People are more invested in their jobs if you offer them as much authority as they can manage. Empower your people to make decisions, take action and put ideas in motion. The less your people need to rely on you to make decisions, the more fulfilled they’ll become.
Challenge your people to accomplish what they didn’t think possible. Provide real opportunities that push them. People find passion when they’re free to be all they can be. Create a culture that aims high and demands excellence. Your people can raise the bar on their own endeavors, as you continue to reward their successes and offer positive feedback.
Of course, challenges carry opportunities for failure. Allow for mistakes when people are trying their best. Letting people fail can be positive if you continue to support them and send them back out there with new challenges. People need to learn from their mistakes and often find success in ways that wouldn’t be possible without having failed. A culture that forgives failure reduces fear and hesitancy, two significant roadblocks to fulfillment. Leaders who offer authentic encouragement and confidence boost their people’s passion.
Your most effective way to inspire passion is to live it. Passion cannot be forced or faked (too easy to detect). Leading authentically draws followers, so don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Not everyone will agree with your visions and ideas. Every time you put yourself out there, you risk rejection or pushback. Confidence and determination help balance vulnerability (displaying strength through weakness, as Crowe puts it).
Authentic feelings, responses and behaviors engage people, affording you respect and trust. Trusting employees are more likely to be fulfilled.