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  • Writer's pictureSean Lewis

The Balance Between Authenticity and Professionalism

Difference between Authenticity, Professionalism, and DEI - SLC-Advisory-Group-Buffalo-NY

Authenticity and professionalism go hand in hand. They are a symbiotic relationship where each provides sustenance to the other. The confusion begins when transparency is mistaken for authenticity…because here begins a “race to the bottom” with the dangers of over-transparency. However, turns out as I move this paragraph from afterthought to introductory placement, this isn’t the article that I thought I was about to write.

Initially, I thought it would be a treatise on the need to preserve our personal and professional filters. Or, at the very least, it was supposed to be an appeal to help me clean up my daily feeds from content that makes me blush for the person producing it…the way-oversharing-kind. The old-adage-“TMI”-kind that are, on the one side of this imbalance versus the over-reliance on the accoutrements of business (the 3-piece suit, stoicism, numbers over emotion, and much other business dogma, etc.) that are on the other side.

However, I was very interested in how generations following mine, that we have been recently labeling as being more authentic, but at the same time as less professional, feel about the subject. I was actuality surprised at both the divergence and convergence of opinions between white, people of color, women, or any other minority for that matter.

On being authentic, where the overall convergence occurs, is the belief that we should be true to ourselves at work or, that we should be bringing our "whole selves" to work. The trouble with this is, for better or worse, we have chosen to live in a society with its already generational, accumulated norms (agreement in all notwithstanding), and a business with more than two people working in it (owner or otherwise) will always represent a microcosm of that society. In fact, the acquiescence to societal norms is the foundation of the ability for people cooperate in any meaningful way, and it is completely dependent on the shared narrative that we all rally around.

The overall issue with bringing the whole self to work is when adherence to the traditional (generational?) boundaries break. This results in the elimination of the important function of societal boundaries (passed on through the narrative), which is to compartmentalize our whole selves so we can all cooperate in the first place. I feel this is an important part that is missing from the majority of authenticity discussions.

Let’s face it. Even in our personal lives we do not produce to the world our whole selves in every social situation we encounter. When we go to a restaurant, we don’t bring our own stereos (or phones on speaker) to blast tunes while we eat. We generally don’t belch at the top of our lungs. We generally use utensils instead of face-down, pie-eating contest-style, competitive eating techniques. We also generally act differently at a football game than how we act when going to the store or doctor office. I don’t see 10% of people (or anyone for that matter), when shopping at the mall, bare-chested in blue, from face to waistline, running around with oversized drinks or foam hands.

This is not a specific call-out on these behaviors as extreme. It’s simply an acknowledgement that we already understand on the whole that there is a time and a place for certain behaviors and discussions (we’re likely not going to be talking about sex when meeting the future in-laws for the first time). Although the point may be assumed, it’s important to note that we do this because we were taught, as we grew into adults, something of etiquette which, in the end, is a purposeful, society-driven compartmentalization of our “whole selves.”

In our work lives, I would propose that the same application of this compartmentalization is what we term as professionalism, where professionalism is simply an expansion of those items of etiquette, but with specialized additions to working as teams. However, I also understand that there are many examples of who we consider “consummate professionals” but whose authenticity manifests as being prejudicial and racist. It is this intersection that leads to yet another overlap, this time with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

From my own reviews, there seems to be a continuum of overlap between professionalism, authenticity, and DEI, but where the ingredients of authenticity differ greatly between white male and non-white, non-male, or non-conformity counterparts. Also, the DEI response is frequently opposite to encouraging compromise with established (generational) societal norms, and primarily focused on changing hearts and minds (which at any age above middle childhood is nigh-impossible—more on this later). In fact, this opinion has been additionally made clearer by both participants and practitioners, as well as those responsible for driving the subject from the C-suite that, in their collective admonition that, while DEI helps check off many different boxes, it does little to drive any meaningful change in the current formats and time allotments provided (because it simply cannot).

In addition to the low probabilities of changing hearts and minds at the onset, the application or absorption of the tenets of DEI are not universal to the whole Organizational Chart. They are incredibly influenced by how many levels of employee income brackets the trainings combine in a session(s).

An important distinction born of the overlap of authenticity and DEI is that, for the white male, authenticity primarily revolves around the sharing of opinions, experiences, and emotions. This becomes particularly problematic because the former two have drastic, multiplier effects on the latter, and when boundaries are (frequently) crossed they create extremely emotionally charged cultures with untenable daily dramas. For the non-white, non-male, non-conformity driven, it also appears that authenticity primarily revolves around “cultural norms," especially pertaining to appearance (hair, clothes, tattoos, or other adornments), misconceptions on what are microaggressions or cultural sensitivities, and the like. Absolutely, these have deep roots in the formation and expansions of our culture. It is also understood that these are likely oversimplified in this article because a referendum on DEI (not to mention the vast difference between Diversity and Inclusion), was not my intention for this writing either (actually, for a very robust discussion on DEI, check out this article by Col. Sudip Mukerjee of Reserv3 Consulting). However, in the current formats, we’re effectively prioritizing acceptance over compromise.

This is an important point, as we cannot eliminate bias from our lives because it is simply a (necessary) fact of nature and subsequently intertwined with professionalism. We simply cannot be all-understanding of all-things, so knowledge gaps (the ignorance of the other) will naturally create biases. We can, however, acknowledge this and we can also mitigate it. In practicality, I believe we would be better off accepting that the same is true of prejudice and racism, and although we cannot eliminate them either, we most certainly can NOT TOLERATE them (i.e. zero-tolerance policies, etc.). In the end, I would also argue that the aforementioned “consummate professionals” were not actually practicing “full professionalism” as in our own commonly agreed upon components that pertain to respect, fairly treating others, and mindfulness of cultural differences and norms (think all the bowing trainings in the mid-to-late 90’s when Japanese Business were at the forefront of cultural popularity then).

So where do we learn etiquette? Where do we learn professionalism? Well, they both start with our parents, then our peers, then the “street-in-every-day-life.” We then refine our learning as adults, through our first jobs and also our first meaningful relationships, where our successes and failures shape our understanding of “what filters belong when.” These inform our initial reference points for establishing a balance between our authentic selves and our professional selves.

However, the tenets of DEI are indeed valuable and much needed in our workforces, but I believe that, to achieve the actual results we're after, we need to reduce the priority of DEI as a service, or an industry. Rather, we need to improve the balance between authenticity and professionalism in our corporate cultures by establishing “true to definition” professional behaviors through:

1) Agreement as a business culture to compromise on common boundaries for authenticity;

2) Zero-tolerance policies for exhibited racism and prejudice, and not hiring anyone who has history of this

3) Establishing meaningful, professional mentoring at entry level positions (we used to call this apprenticeship)

4) Prioritizing business socialization education championing that it is through trust and like-mindedness that is built over time that we can begin to appropriately reduce the number of filters between our social/professional selves and our truly authentic selves.

This is not naively thought of as an overnight fix and, in the interim, it will require real modifications to the existing vehicles of DEI. In conjunction, there is a need for concerted efforts to create meaningful education programs that begin early, include parents and that celebrate differences and compromise rather than promote conformism to unrealistic expectations on either side of the argument. Already, we are seeing the unintended consequences in the current status quo with attitudes and through backlashes evident in all our communities.


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