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Why It Pays to Help Employees Be Authentic

Nina Bernardin February 15, 2018

Wanted: Perfect employee. Should be available 24/7, never tire (mentally or physically), show no emotions besides enthusiasm for the tasks at hand, blend in seamlessly with current employees, have no outside responsibilities, and always put the job first. Will gladly and easily leave quirks and personal needs at home and set aside any responsibilities that may interfere with their duties. Ideal candidate is available to start immediately.

While no hiring manager would ever post such an outrageous ad, the truth is that in many workplaces, the culture and norms do expect employees to show up as office-ready, automaton-like versions of themselves. But anyone who has tried simultaneously having a job and being human knows that real people are always balancing complex physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual lives. Ignoring this reality in the workplace harms not only employees themselves, but the companies they work for.

The Employee Engagement Crisis

It’s no secret that the the vast majority of employees are distracted, disempowered, and disengaged at work. This epidemic affects all industries across the globe, and according to recent studies conducted by Aon Hewitt, the situation isn’t getting better. An annual study covering more than five million employees at over 1,000 organizations revealed that less than a quarter of employees are highly engaged, 39 percent are only moderately engaged, and, despite companies efforts, employee engagement decreased globally by 2 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Employee engagement directly impacts financial performance. “If you unleash people’s discretionary effort … you unleash unlimited power and opportunity for that business,” say Pat Wadors, head of talent at LinkedIn, who speaks of engagement in terms of “belonging.”

The numbers back her up: Companies with sustainably engaged employees — ones who have the physical, emotional, and social energy to invest extra effort in their work — have operating margins almost double those of traditionally engaged employees. Additionally, employees who are satisfied in their jobs are 54 percent more able to focus and 2.3 times as engaged. Meanwhile, those who don’t have the chance to do what they enjoy most at work are 38 percent less focused, 49 percent less engaged, and 57 percent less likely to stay with the organization. Poor focus, low engagement, and high turnover translates to hundreds of millions of lost dollars annually as companies struggle to replace workers and increase productivity.

The Authenticity Connection

There’s no quick fix to increased employee engagement. It doesn’t come from wage increases  or elaborate incentive structures (though fair pay is a minimum requirement that releases the potential for engagement). It’s not about fancy perks or rah-rah team-building. To increase engagement, employers must actively promote employee health and balance outside of the office, and build a company culture where employees are free to bring their full potential — and whatever else is authentically present for them — to work every day. The more people feel their needs are met at work, including the fundamental human need for belonging, the more healthy, happy, engaged, productive, and loyal they become and the better they’ll take care of a business.

“What is imperative with regard to co-creators is to reveal their essence and express it in meaningful ways in their work,” writes veteran business educator Carol Sanford in “The Responsible Business.” “Essence is the true nature or distinctive character that identifies or makes something what it is. … Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi … found in his research that humans who feel ‘in the flow of life,’ at their most creative and grounded, are in touch with a sense of their true self. This is the state from which they make their highest-quality contribution, and is invaluable to a company.”

Authentic workplaces tap into the full range of people’s knowledge and talents, the sum of which is only enhanced by their differences. Yes, differences can generate conflict, but if used constructively, the conflict feeds creativity and high engagement. “‘Diversity’ is what makes us unique,” explains LinkedIn’s Wadors. “‘Inclusion’ is about actions. It’s how we treat you, how we invite you to the table and do it fairly and honestly and trustingly. How I feel is the ‘Belonging.’ Do I feel psychological safety? Do I feel a sense of community? Can I be my unique self? Because then you can unleash superpowers. If companies look at that full equation, that creates the employee experience of diverse thought. That’s what companies really need: diverse thought to create great products, to go out into the market and understand diverse customers and serve the needs and be profitable.”

So how is it done?

Research now supports a cocktail of policies that support employees in bringing their full selves to work. Authentic workplaces allow people to freely be themselves: to have voice, express disagreement, show what they really care about, and feel fulfilled on the job. “You have to create environment where candid, transparent conversation is accepted and expected,” says Plum Organics’ SVP of Innovation, Ben Mand, “People need to feel secure bringing up controversial or tough conversations without fear of being judged or that it will affect their career.”  Whatever the need be — time to care for a sick spouse, flexible work hours to accommodate a passion or hobby, a particular kind of food at company gatherings — people first need to feel safe to share it.

Between now and June 2018, in partnership with Plum Organics, we are releasing a series of articles all about the workplace of the future, featuring success stories, advice from the trenches, key challenges, best practices, and more. Stay tuned to our Bring Your Own Self To Work channel for the latest articles, and email us at if you have an authentic workplace questions or success story to share.

Equity and Inclusion / Stakeholder Capitalism
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