By Anka Wittenberg, Senior Vice-president and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SAP


Workplace diversity is a top goal for companies of all sizes today. Research shows that enterprises which include people of both genders and of multiple generations, cultures and physical abilities increase their productivity, improve the effectiveness of their employee teams and better their bottom line. A more diverse workforce clearly equals rewards.

At the level of the individual, however, less is more. Rather than trying to be « all things » to their employers, people perform better and are more engaged when they focus on being their singular, authentic selves.

When companies also encourage and reward this kind of authenticity and genuineness among their leaders, these leaders, in turn, are more likely to create real value for the organization.

So, how does authenticity support a business? When people feel free to be who and what they are — both privately and publicly — they have more energy to create and innovate. Authentic workers are more likely to bring their whole selves to the job, engage with the company’s goals and participate fully in the mission of the enterprise.

These same employees also recognize and are attracted to authentic leaders, and follow them with greater dedication — leading to stronger teams and enhanced business performance.

Get real.

Authenticity is especially important in the areas of gender and sexual orientation. The corporate world has long trained women to behave and even dress like men. Executives often coach women to negotiate “like a man,” by using male body language, lowering their natural speaking voices and avoiding feminine or frilly clothing — so that they will be taken « seriously. » Yet covering up natural female behaviors or appearances to seem more masculine does not help women lead effectively.

“The women I see succeeding bring their whole self to it,” Barbara Annis told NBC News. Annis is founding partner of Gender Intelligence Group and the chair emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard Kennedy School. “They’re empowered, and they’re driven by their values, » Annis continued. « The key is really to be authentic. »

Similarly, many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in leadership positions believe they must mask their sexual orientation to be viewed as effective. Yet, businesspeople who feel they must hide something about themselves find it hard to relax and concentrate on their work. They spend precious energy covering up their differences and attempting to minimize the perceived stigma of what actually makes them unique.

As a result, when they’re in an executive role, they may be inauthentic leaders — and inauthentic leaders tend to be less productive and to experience higher rates of burnout. In fact, some researchers suggest that inauthentic people may be as much as 20 percent less productive than employees who feel comfortable presenting their authentic selves to the world.

Worse, inauthentic leaders may breech the trust that is so essential to startups and entrepreneurial companies. A lack of authenticity, after all, is palpable. People sense that they see an incomplete or misleading picture, even if they don’t understand why. This disconnect can inadvertently create mistrust in working relationships among colleagues, suppliers, customers and prospects.

Lead courageously.

Business leaders can take steps to encourage authenticity in the workforce -– and in the process show their own authentic selves. By encouraging people to be who they truly are, and by welcoming differences, leaders create a more supportive, productive work environment. Employees then become more engaged and willing to take risks. They channel their energy into innovation, which inevitably benefits the company.

To accomplish these things at their companies, leaders must pave the way by taking steps to become authentic themselves. Instead of striving to be seen as all-knowing and all-powerful, effective business executives must be prepared to show their own humanity through vulnerability.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, who presented a powerful TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” explains that at its core, leadership is really about relationships. And being in a relationship with anyone requires a certain degree of vulnerability.

Leaders who display invulnerability create disengagement throughout the company culture. But embracing vulnerability, Brown says, is the key to creating an effective workforce for the future. “Re-humanizing work and education requires courageous leadership,” says Brown. “It requires leaders who are willing to take risks, embrace vulnerabilities and show up as imperfect, real people.”

Of course, overcoming a longstanding cultural preference for invulnerable leaders and displaying our authentic selves is not always easy. Leaders must be ever ready to overcome societal norms and organizational cultures that prefer more traditional yet less effective leadership styles.

Still, becoming a more authentic leader is a battle worth fighting. Leaders who fully embrace authenticity themselves and take steps to welcome it into their company culture can realize tremendous rewards — for themselves and their organizations.