A Great Reason Not to Pretend You Have All the Answers

A Great Reason Not to Pretend You Have All the AnswersIt can feel frightening to admit shortcomings and share vulnerabilities in a professional setting. But leaders who emphasize transparency, honesty and a genuine assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses not only engage in more constructive workplace behaviors themselves, but inspire them in those they supervise.

By sharing your true self with subordinates, you can build trust, nurture cooperation and foster teamwork, according to a strong body of research on authentic leadership. A critical first step to becoming a more authentic leader is a desire for candid self-reflection and a clear commitment to your own personal development.

Warts and all

Authentic leaders are deeply aware of how they think and behave, as well as how others perceive them. They are tuned into the context in which they operate and are most often seen as confident (but not arrogant), optimistic, resilient and possessing high moral character. They do not expect to be perfect or never make mistakes; they do expect to learn and grow.

By creating a transparent and fair working atmosphere, authentic leaders also positively impact employee willingness to go above and beyond for the greater good (what researchers call organizational citizenship behaviors). They create a constructive trickle-down effect where success grows from their ability to build trust with those they supervise.

Trust between leaders and team members

Behavior scientists define two types of trust that occur between workplace leaders and those they lead.

Affective trust or “trust from the heart” is what makes you feel a sense of security in a relationship. It is based on reciprocity, mutual care and concern and an emotional tie between both parties. When team members are shown respect and perceive their leaders as genuine, they develop a sense of obligation to reciprocate and engage in similar behaviors.

Cognitive trust or “trust from the head” is based on an employee’s evaluation of a leader’s character, decisions and actions. Are they reliable? Competent? Do they act with integrity? Employees feel less vulnerable in hierarchical relationships (where supervisors control assignments, promotions and pay) when leaders are predictable and rational.

Authentic leaders build trust through consistent actions that indicate respect, dignity and integrity, and by presenting an accurate version of themselves that includes strengths and weaknesses.

Employees who go above and beyond

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology from faculty at Zhejiang University in China explored the impact of authentic leadership styles on 270 employees working in the private banking sector in Pakistan. They found that both affective and cognitive (heart and head) trust in leaders positively predicted the willingness of team members to engage in productive behaviors for the good of the group, even if they were not tied to specific personal rewards.

The researchers measured authentic leadership by asking study participants to respond to statements such as, “My manager seeks feedback to improve interaction with others,” “My manager admits mistakes when they are made,” and “My manager demonstrates beliefs that are consistent with actions.”

Organizational citizenship behaviors were measured with statements such as, “I willingly give my time to help other staff members with work-related problems.”

Becoming a more authentic leader

To become a more authentic leader, commit to your ongoing development and focus on the four recognized dimensions of authentic leadership:

  • Self-awareness relates to how well you understand your own strengths and weaknesses. You can build this competency with online self-assessment tools, by seeking feedback from leaders and mentors and engaging in ongoing skill development.
  • Balanced processing reflects your ability to consider all relevant information before reaching a decision. By focusing on the big picture and seeking out data that supports and refutes your own thinking, you help employees see that diverse viewpoints are considered and they will be more willing to share their own insights and ideas.
  • Relational transparency is being honest about your own abilities, thoughts and feelings, even if it requires admitting you were wrong or providing difficult feedback to a team member. You can model transparency by saying what you mean.
  • Internalized moral perspective is seen in how your behaviors mesh with stated moral values. Being clear about your own ethical code and not bending the rules to serve your own interests engenders trust.

Developing greater comfort with personal transparency and strengthening your skills in authentic leadership will help you build trust among team members and inspire behaviors that create a more positive and productive workplace.