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I was a Fortune 500 HR SVP for ten million years, but I was an opera singer before I ever heard the term HR. The higher I got in the corporate world, the more operatic the action became. I started writing about the workplace for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997, but it took me ages to find my own voice. Now I write for the Huffington Post, Business Week, LinkedIn, the Harvard Business Review, the Denver Post and Forbes.com and lead the worldwide Human Workplace movement to reinvent work for people. Stop by and join us: http://www.humanworkplace.com
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
It has become fashionable to say “We have to be authentic at work” and “Our company is all about authenticity.” I am sick of hearing about authenticity at work, to be honest with you.
I’m sick of hearing about that idiotic emotional intelligence garbage, too. We love to get abstract and academic when we talk about work. We love to put labels on things.
We say “Well, you have to forgive Charlie, whose emotional intelligence is limited” and when you say that, everyone feels okay about letting Charlie be a jerk and mistreat people.
Nobody says anything to Charlie. That would be hard. We go “Tsk, tsk, emotional intelligence deficit much?” and we chuckle over our understanding of such complex and weighty things.
We don’t say Jack when we would say something if we had any backbone, but we don’t have any. We tell ourselves that it’s okay not to have a backbone, because we have a good job instead.
The thing we should be talking about is not emotional intelligence and it isn’t authenticity, either. There’s no trick in being yourself, for God’s sake. You do it naturally at home and at the grocery store.
The only reason we have to talk about emotional intelligence or authenticity at work is that there is a huge impenetrable barrier at work keeping people from being authentic or real. We never talk about the barrier because it’s too awkward to talk about it.
We are afraid. You want authenticity? People quake in their boots at work when they have to say something real or true. What if somebody higher up doesn’t like what I say? What will happen to me then?
That is the authentic truth about people at work.
I studied the phenomenon and I can tell you why I had a decent vantage point on it, apart from the fact that I was an HR leader in close proximity to people high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and other people down at the bottom of it.
I was a grad student in Communications interested in human behavior.
Our company went public in 1991 and I got a bunch of cash out of that event. Don’t be jealous because that money is long gone.
I was in a situation where if I had gotten fired, not that I was really in any danger of getting fired, it would have been okay for me financially. It would not have been devastating.
I was able to observe myself to a certain degree – not perfectly of course, but to a reasonable degree - because I wasn’t personally in mortal terror of the financial impact to me and my family if I had ticked the wrong person off.
That gave me a good buffer from which to observe fear at work, but I could see that it wasn’t even a financial thing. We just don’t like to be in trouble or to be criticized.
Even as accomplished adults we still fear rejection and displeasing people we view as higher on some ladder than we are.
I would get off the phone with my boss sometimes and say to myself “My boss is potentially mad at me. I can tell from the tone of his voice on the phone right now.
“He’s mad at someone else and he’s going to tell me about it when I meet him in an hour, or else he’s mad at me. My heart is pounding right now. That’s a fear reaction.
“Why am I afraid? My boss is very straight with me. If he’s upset with me, he’s going to tell me about it and we’re going to figure it out.
“Still, I have adrenaline shooting through my body like I’m under attack. It isn’t a financial concern. It’s something else, and it’s pretty blinkin’ fundamental because it’s deep in my body and it’s not rational. It’s fight or flight. I feel it right now.”
I never said out loud “I am terrified right now. I feel like I’m in a firefight in a war zone.” I never heard anybody else say it, either.
After a lot of similar incidents it was obvious that I couldn’t be the only person dealing with fear as a massive and unaddressed topic at work. It’s everywhere.
I was well-regarded and I probably got a lot more encouragement and affirmation than a lot of other working people do and I still had fear reactions several times a week. If you had asked me how I felt at those moments, I would have said “Peachy!”
I wasn’t about to tell anyone I was stressing my adrenal glands to the point where I undoubtedly shortened my lifespan.
Nonetheless, my limbic system was on full alert quite often. “This is the real problem,” I said to myself. “Forget authenticity. Authenticity is what pops right back up as soon as the layer of crushing fear is removed.”
How can you remove fear? If you screw up at work, you can get fired. We banter around and tell jokes and high-five but the fear is underneath. We keep it at bay.
It comes from the structure of our financial relationship with our bosses. It’s sick that we don’t talk about it. It’s the great unspoken understanding that business rests on.
Is there anything to be done? We have to work on ourselves. When you actually don’t care whether you get fired or not, or whether anyone likes what you have to say or not, then you gain incredible strength. You are the Hulk then.
You don’t care. I know about six people who have reached that state and it is like enlightenment. I’m not talking about making millions of dollars. That is different. You can have so-called “F— You Money” and I know lots of of people in that state, too.
You can still have fear – fear of being insignificant apart from your money, fear of not making your mark on the planet while you’re here.
I’m talking about a kind of fearlessness that doesn’t come from having piles of money in the bank. When you have tons of money, you have to think about where the money is invested and lots of other things.
You have to wonder whether people are being real with you or kissing up to you because of your money. Most of our CEO clients have tons of money and they worry about that. You would, too! Maybe you do.
The fearless people I’m talking about don’t have tons of money but they trust two things: themselves, and the world around them. They know they’ll be okay if someone tells them to pack their stuff and go.
They say what they think in the moment because it has served them well to do that. Maybe they got fired for it at some point and by now that’s a funny story that they tell. That’s how you grow muscles — not by hitting some yardstick on the wall or getting a gold star from your boss.
You know what happens to you when you get a gold star? Your muscles atrophy. You don’t know who you are, because you get your approval from someone else. That’s a sickness.
What evil genius convinced millions of people to devote their brains and hearts to hitting someone else’s goals in in exchange for a paycheck, and one that can be yanked at any moment if the higher-up doesn’t like what you have to say?
It’s a broken system and it will crush you unless you build your own muscles, little by little very day.
Are you ready to start? Make it your practice to do these seven things:
The Seven Habits of Fearless People