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Authenticity is the new professionalism

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Published on 17th November, 2021
By Alex Bell
Categories: | Opinion |

If you haven’t heard about the ‘great resignation’ yet, you really need to catch up.

First coined by Dr Anthony Klotz from Texas A&M University in an article at the end of May 2021, he explained how the Covid vaccine meant a return to work in the US, but alongside it a wave of resignations.

And it’s not just a US phenomenon. In the UK, in Australia the stats and the stories all point to the same thing. One million resignations in the UK and ten million in the US in the summer of 2021

Quite simply, many of us have had some sort of existential ‘moment’ during at least one of the lockdowns of 2020/2021. And the reasons being shared in resignation emails and heart to hearts with friends and family: ‘reconsider my priorities’, ‘work-life balance’, ‘follow my passion’, ‘something less-office bound and more fulfilling’

And who can argue with that? Employers certainly need to urgently find a way to respond and to attract and retain these same people by providing the balance, fulfilment and passion that they crave.

So, underlying all of these signals is a search for authentic meaning, authentic purpose and a sense of authentic wholeness. And the ability to be our authentic selves when engaging with others.

Simon Sinek defined the difference between burnout and passion as the difference between working flat-out for something you believe in and something you don’t. Don’t ask Brewdog’s ex-employees about the difference between their authentic experience and the narrative being told at the time. Did they burn out or did the fuse burn on an inauthentic leadership?

The End of Professionalism

Way before Covid, there were signs that we would all need to reconcile the work-life separation and not let ‘professionalism’ stifle our authentic circumstances.

We should have seen the prophecy in the infamous ‘storming’ in 2017 of Professor Robert Kelly’s live interview about South Korea with BBC News by his toddler children, his attempt to subtly shoo them away and his wife Jung-a Kim crashing into the room and failing spectacularly in her attempt to remove them unseen.

What is interesting is to watch both the initial clip and the subsequent relaxed family interview after it had gone viral.

Exactly the same people involved in both interviews.

In the first, both Dr Kelly and Jung-a, sacrifice some level of authenticity and perhaps dignity, in a vain attempt at professionalism on camera. In the second, they are all interviewed, and their authenticity and life are seen to be reassuringly in balance as a working family. The young children remain true to themselves throughout.

The story went viral, mostly for the recognition it struck with so many parents disarmed by their children when attempting to be a ‘professional’ in public. However, the Kelly family viral moment seemed to give permission to many for subsequent video-conferences and interviews from home to be far more authentic and reflective of working family life.

Authenticity and equality

And Covid itself meant giving in to authenticity and no-one batting an eyelid. In 2020, Dr Clare Wenham’s young daughter crawled onto the desk during an interview with the BBC. This time, the tone was relaxed, unapologetic and a perfect illustration of the point she was making that the collision between our personal and professional lives during lockdown may have helped further gender equality.

It’s also easy to forget the seismic shift in how many of us literally ‘show up for work’ these days. No longer ‘suited, booted and commuted’, we see colleagues at all levels in a new way — as whole people with families, pets and home paraphernalia often in full view.

We have had to be a little less guarded, a little more comfortable to be ourselves.

Then there’s the shifting of dynamics of personality and power to something more intimate and authentic.

In a board room or in-person meeting pre-Covid, too often conversations have been dominated by extroverts or those holding power through role or race. And often others saying almost nothing or giving the ‘corporate nod’.

When these meetings switched to video-conference, this opened up a whole new channel for parallel contributions, interjections or polite asides via the chat box. A subtle shift emerged– and a more democratic way for diverse and authentic voices to be heard.

And woe betide any organisation or CEO trying to sidestep the big issues of the day, remaining ‘professional’ to ‘avoiding politics’. Employees and customers alike are looking for authentic opinions and alignment with their own values and choices.

In 2016, when American football quarterback, Colin Kaepernick took the knee rather than stand as is customary during the pre-match national anthem, in protest against racial injustice, police brutality and systemic oppression in his country – his authentic and heartfelt actions received highly polarised reactions, eventually leaving him unsigned at the NFL for the next season.

Yet, in 2018 Kaepernick fronted a campaign for Nike with the slogan “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” His protests received renewed attention during the George Floyd protests of 2020 and many other businesses and organisations who had remained publicly apolitical were starting to appear inauthentic and unable to read the moment.

Not just racial justice, but gender equality & identity and actively addressing the climate crisis could no longer be ignored for the sake of professionalism.

So, what have we learned from all this?

Professionalism and all that it represents in being out of touch with the human experience looks like it needs an upgrade. An upgrade that starts with empathy, embraces diversity and imperfection, social justice and relatability and ends by bringing us much closer to our authentic selves and our connections with each other. It’s very clear that’s the only way to attract and retain great people.

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