Fernando Fischmann

Authentic Workplaces Don’t Try to Make Everyone the Same

25 November, 2015 / Articles
Fernando fischmann

Look around your organization, at the people with whom you interact every day. What do you see? Does your workplace reflect a relative balance of males and females in leadership positions? A healthy range of diversity in terms of age, skin color, religious conviction, culture, or/and sexual orientation? Yes? Before you congratulate yourself on how diverse your workplace is, what if we told you it might not be diverse enough — or at least not in the ways that matter most?

To attract the best people and succeed as a business, the “authentic organization” of the future — where people can be, and be valued as, their best selves — will need to foster environments where creativity and innovation are at a premium, employees feel engaged and committed, and leadership pipelines are carefully cultivated for future success. In our research, workplaces with those qualities look for an unusual kind of diversity, hiring people for differences that are more than skin deep.

Differences — Not Just Diversity

Let’s be clear about what we mean by “difference.” While many companies define difference along the lines of traditional diversity categories — gender, race, age, ethnicity — the executives we have interviewed were after something subtler. They surrounded themselves with people whose differences in perspectives, habits of mind, and core assumptions would challenge and push them in new directions. Therefore, we focus on the fundamental differences in attitudes and mind-set between one person and another (whether or not there’s also a demographic difference between them).

Make no mistake: companies that succeed in nurturing people’s uniqueness and individuality may have to forgo some degree of organizational process and structure. Consider the route taken by Ilkka Paananen, the CEO and cofounder of the Finnish gaming company Supercell. “We don’t have an HR function, and that is a deliberate decision,” he told us. “Retaining the culture and hiring the best people is our primary task . . . You cannot delegate that responsibility to HR.”

Conversely, pursuit of predictability leads to a culture of conformity, what Emile Durkheim called mechanical solidarity—“a solidarity sui generis which, born of resemblances, directly links the individual with society.” But cultures in the companies we followed were forged out of “organic solidarity”—which, Durkheim argued, rests on the productive exploitation of differences.

There are two aspects of individuality that we explore in the context of organizations. The first, simply put, is that authentic workplaces allow people to be themselves: to have a voice, exercise discretion, express disagreement, show what they really care about, feel “natural” or self-fulfilled on the job. So we are talking not just about the buttoned-down financial services company that embraces the IT guys in shorts and sandals, but also the place where nearly everyone comes in at odd hours while accommodating the one or two people who prefer a nine-to-five schedule.

The second, equally important aspect of individuality is that effective organizations are willing and able to leverage the wide range of differences among their people. This is critical in fostering a culture of authenticity, and executives in our research cited this trait again and again as key to job satisfaction.

Three Examples of Workplace Authenticity

Consider the following three workplaces: a cluster of shops and cafes in a small Italian town; a hip, successful record label in Manhattan; and the British Army. Although most people would be hard-pressed to find a clear similarity among these seemingly incongruous contexts, our research into organizations has shown us how these three workplaces resemble one another in one crucial way: they all tap the full range of people’s knowledge and talents. Indeed, it’s precisely the differences among the people who work in these settings, their unique traits and individuality, that contribute to the success of those workplaces.

Life and work in a Tuscan town. Let’s begin with the cluster of shops in the Italian town, where one lucky member of this writing team (Rob Goffee) has an apartment. It’s no wonder that he and his wife return to Italy as often as possible. When they walk into the local delicatessen, the owners greet them with a kiss on each cheek. They ask about the Goffees’ children and tell them about theirs. They talk about how things are going on their farm where their fresh meat is sourced, and they offer the Goffees samples of a new cheese. It won’t surprise you that the Goffees are regular customers there.

Later in the day the Goffees enjoy a meal in the local pizzeria. When they try to pay with a credit card, the owner, Enrico, reminds them his business is cash only. Unfortunately, the Goffees have just spent their last euro on the sumptuous new cheeses at the deli. “No worries,” Enrico says, shrugging his shoulders. “See you next time.” You won’t be surprised that the Goffees are regular customers here, too.

That evening in the town bar, they strike up a conversation with Cristina as she serves them drinks. Like them, she’s a soccer fan, and a pretty passionate one. They begin to discuss the Italian league. Will Siena have a good season? Is there any chance of getting tickets? Cristina thinks they are out of luck with big games, so she starts searching the local newspaper for matches among the smaller teams. Then she provides the Goffees with detailed directions to the grounds and the best local bar there. You won’t be surprised to know that Cristina’s place also has a warm spot in the Goffees’ hearts.

The next morning they are due to fly home, but discover their budget airline insists that passengers print their boarding passes in advance or face an exorbitant fee at the airport. Sadly, the Goffees have no printer. Una problema, as the Italians would say. As it turns out, Rob also needs a new briefcase, so they stop by a local upmarket leather shop, where the Goffees share their airline woes with the manager, Annetta. She immediately pulls the shutters to close the shop, takes them through the back to her office, accesses their tickets online and prints them. Rob also finds the perfect briefcase.

At one level, the story offers good examples of traders who enrich the customer experience—the friendly greeting and conversation at the deli; the pay-me-later pizzeria; the helpful bar staff; the offer of a printer at the upscale leather shop. But there is more going on than that. This story is about people expressing their individuality, their interests and passions. In doing so, they transform the “customer experience” — not just for the Goffees — from a mere instrumental economic exchange to a more personal interaction. Their interests include you. By just being who they are, they allow their customers to relax and be themselves too.

Great organizations are just like this — individuals do more than merely fulfill role obligations. In each example from the Italian town, people went beyond what we might expect from their roles. They brought themselves to their jobs and roles. And that is the kind of behavior that comes naturally in authentic organizations. Such organizations communicate a sense of authenticity through people expressing their unique character.

Conflict and creativity in the music business. The second workplace in our list, the cool record label, is housed in an office building on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, near the Bowery. The office is on the top floor of a tenement building with grilles over the windows to stop objects from being thrown in. One of us (Gareth) used to visit this office when he worked for the label’s parent company. He recalls the first time he entered the office, feeling somewhat self-conscious in his formal blue suit. The open-plan office was noisy, highly interactive, and a little edgy. Immediately the intoxicating wave of energy hit him. Beneath the only two windows in the loft was an area styled as a Jamaican beach party in full swing, where people hung out and talked music and artists. Within an hour, Gareth knew that if they offered him a job as the mail boy, he’d take it.

But then a dispute broke out: Which single should be the first track released off an album? Two executives engaged in a heated discussion, and tempers rose. The passion was palpable, and, fearing a fistfight, Gareth nearly intervened, pulling his weight as “senior suit.” But things calmed down just in time, and later that day he found the two protagonists laughing and joking with each other. After their sharp exchange, they had devised a novel strategy for releasing a single from the album. Because that’s just how things work around there.



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