In public administration and in all aspects of organisational life, I’d like to suggest that there is something that is in short supply; that if we could get our hands on more of it, we’d be much more credible, adaptive and effective. And I’d like to suggest that leaders have a profoundly important role to play in creating more of this resource.
I’m not talking about programme management skills, or greater business acumen or stronger proficiency in commissioning. I’m talking about both individual and organisational authenticity. Sadly, authenticity is absent from many of the values statements found in civil service departments and the core competencies that we use to recruit, deploy, reward and promote people. But think about it for a moment: authenticity is about acting in accordance with what we believe in. It is about articulating what we care about most and having the conviction to involve the organisation in the discussion. It is about bringing individual strengths and diverse capabilities to the workplace. And it is about an organisational culture where engagement is genuine, the real issues get discussed and where commitment to the direction in which the organisation is travelling is an act of authenticity and not begrudging compliance. Who wouldn’t want more of this?
Conversely, we know that many of us fall foul to the ‘consent and evade’ phenomenon, where we tacitly give the thumbs up to the leadership, or figuratively give the ok sign to the next strategic shift, but privately find ways to evade the call. We know that multi-layered, hierarchical and deferential organisations have the effect of pushing the mute button on the views of those further down the system. This is an unwelcome legacy of an industrial past that sought to ‘mechanise’ human labour, to standardise processes, to minimise distraction and to contain individuality in the name of efficiency and productivity. But this was in a time when work was more physical and the operating environment wasn’t prey to the accelerating pace of change that it is now. The era of the knowledge economy calls for smart thinking, innovation, adaptiveness and diversity of opinion – all qualities that sit at the heart of authenticity, but not at the heart of all organisations. Leading authenticity within an organisation is possible, if leaders are willing to be brave and, dare I say it, show leadership.
Work needs to be focused on releasing three key freedoms in the workplace, namely:
The freedom to operate: creating the conditions for individuals to organise their work in the way that best suits them. But more than this, even when it comes to alternative conceptualisations about what the task itself should entail, this too should be in the domain of control of the individual.
The freedom to speak: creating the conditions for individuals to engage in dialogue that is diverse, open and meaningful and in a manner of their choosing. But more than this, the freedom to speak is a strong encouragement for workers to talk more often, more openly and more deeply about the issues they face.
The freedom to actualise: creating the conditions for individuals to discover, learn and evolve their personalities within the workplace. This needs to be understood as a deep, dynamic process of awareness, development and change at the heart of individuals (think Maslow’s Self Actualization concept Plus).
Practically, leaders can start to invoke greater authenticity by:
- Role modelling authenticity through claiming their own freedoms. As leaders exhibit greater authenticity, this acts as an open invitation for others to do the same.
- Adopting a ‘Min Spec’ (Minimum Specification) approach to communicating tasks and outcomes and creating greater freedom to operate for employees to design their own approaches to their work.
- Constantly interpreting and sharing the values, culture, and strategic intent of the organisation in ways which are meaningful for individual workers, to allow them to operate freely and authentically, but in line with the strategy.
- Protecting the space for people to conduct small experiments with their work and be clear that failure is an important and valued part of the process of learning.
And here are some organisational strategies to help create authentic workplaces.
- Aim for transparency and think of the organisation as a “glasshouse” – where behaviour, values and responsibilities are visible for all to see.
- Offer diverse workspaces that can cater for introverts, extraverts, groups, those who need quiet time etc. and allow people to choose what works best for them.
- Create a multiplicity of forums for different kinds of dialogue and signal that even the difficult issues will be heard.
- Break down structures of deference; this is a major roadblock to authenticity.
With an election on the cards in 2015, an uncertain outlook for the economy, and an austerity-weary workforce, isn’t this the ideal time to re-invigorate and redesign the psychological contract with Civil Service employees, and in doing so breathe new life into the public service?