For an organization to reap the benefits of diverse members, everyone must bring their authentic selves, and the organization must maintain an inclusive environment where people are involved, respected, and connected, a place where the range of human differences can be harnessed to pull in one direction.
SEE PRIOR PARTS IN THIS SERIES BELOW
But which self should one bring? The self is complicated. It is a product of the past, present, and future. It is comprised of your unique personality tendencies and internal factors over which you have no control: age, gender, sex, race, size. It is molded by external factors such as geography, income, education, religion, family, appearance, work. It is affected by your professional and community affiliations: status, organizations, function, seniority. Authenticity is dynamic. Which of your selves do you want to show up in a given situation? How do you want to manage others’ impressions of you? Those decisions require self-awareness, social awareness, and intentionality.
It is best when the identity we project aligns with our organization’s mission and culture. When we look or feel different from the norm, we can choose strategies to stand out or fit in. I had such choices to make when I lived and worked outside the U.S. I am 6’5” tall, and when I lived in Iran for a year I had a beard. There was no mistaking me for a local. Once when I entered a mosque someone who looked like a caretaker yelled at me angrily and shooed me away. I felt angry because my intention was to appreciate his sacred space, not to disrespect it. I felt resentful, thinking that in my country we would not treat a visitor like that. I did not like those feelings and developed a coping strategy. We chose not to buy a car there, so I walked a lot. Locals sometimes called out to tease or disparage a foreigner. In the heavy traffic congestion, cars were ceaselessly honking at other vehicles. I purchased a bicycle horn and attached it to my belt. When I wanted to cross a busy street I honked, and the traffic gave way for me. The presence of the horn on my belt gave locals something to laugh at that I did not take personally.
In Iran I was a temporary outsider. Other people have visible differences that aren’t temporary—race, sex, or disability, for example. Those people have multiple strategies to choose from whether their intention is to fit in or stand out. To fit in, one strategy is to distance yourself from others who share your difference: “I’m an engineer, not a woman.” Another strategy is to assimilate by emphasizing things you possess that are valued in your environment: your analytical or technical skills, for instance. To stand out, one strategy is confirmation: play up a positive stereotype perceived as valuable such as “women’s intuition” in decision-making. Another stand-out strategy is addition: showcase skills that are valued in the organization as well as unique skills based on your difference. With a horn, I could fit into traffic and call attention to my difference in a neutral way.
Adopting coping strategies when your social identity does not match the norms of an organization you are part of is wasteful.
It leads to excessive situational monitoring, masking, and covering to hide your true self, “code-switching” in which, figuratively and literally, you speak a language other than your day-to-day language, frustration and cynicism, and, ultimately, isolation, withdrawal, and turnover. Your energy is better directed to serve the mission and goals of your organization.
In the next Reflection, I will deal with what can be done to encourage alignment of different selves with organizational mission and culture without losing authenticity. Individuals can be self-aware about how they show up and how important that is to them. Leaders can provide a diverse group of people with an environment that leverages their differences and discourages middle-of-the-night departures.