Culture club #2: our series on organisational culture looks at the first of BOOST&Co’s seven tenets – authenticity, and why it underpins successful teams

“Authenticity” has become a buzz word in the media in recent months, but forget the Radio 4 think pieces: the concept was famously articulated in Shakespeare’s Hamlet more than 400 years ago. “This above all,” Polonius insists: “To thine own self be true.”

The concept has gained further currency in the 21st century, with mounting evidence that “being yourself” can benefit businesses and their employees – but how easy is it to be authentic in the workplace, given the tensions and stress of modern life?

Creating the right environment

Heather Bingham, BOOST&Co’s organisational psychologist, has mapped the culture of many companies during her career. Questions about authenticity can “create consternation in less secure environments” than the one she found at BOOST&Co, where staff “relished talking to me openly about the workings of the firm and their role within it”, she says.

Bingham’s work crystallised into seven words that represented all of the private-debt lender’s employees: authentic, brave, self-motivated, curious, smart, interested and interesting. But authentic “comes first in the list”, she says, “because it’s the catalyst for everything that’s good”.

Bingham argues that authenticity underpins all of BOOST&Co’s successes, from the company’s swift investment process and thorough decision-making to its low failure rate. “To achieve this, do we work long hours? No, not at all,” she says. “Authenticity enables our staff to spend time doing what makes them interesting in the evenings, not just at weekends.”

Why authentic business leaders succeed

Bingham’s findings are supported by the work of thinkers such as Edgar Schein, Henna Inam and Frank J. Barrett, who argue that authentic leaders, in particular, “garner an openness and a trust that motivates and develops teams in a way that cannot be matched”, she says.

These leaders eliminate traditional barriers of “them and us” by working with their teams, and with each other, in the same way. Staff can therefore “trust that what they see is what everyone gets”, says Bingham, who believes that BOOST&Co’s partners, Lance Mysyrowicz and Sonia Powar, fit this mould.

This approach lightens employees’ mental load, saving them the time and effort of assuming different guises for different people throughout the working day. “Members of our team do not need to have one mode of being for Lance and Sonia and another for each other,” says Bingham, who coaches all of the company’s employees individually, in regular sessions tailored to their needs.

Happiness is not the answer

As authenticity is increasingly exploited by the advertising industry, billboards beam down constant reminders to “be yourself” – but it is not always that easy. The fields of philosophy and psychology have long been concerned with the struggle to be true to oneself. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, made this struggle central to his theory of existentialism, but he knew that anxiety and angst got in the way.

More recently, in his book Authentic: How to Be Yourself and Why It Matters, the psychologist Stephen Joseph says that “the endlessly happy life is not possible”. Joseph argues that people should instead seek self-actualisation: namely, the state in which they are at their very best, after their basic needs have been met.

Joseph’s definition of self-actualisation shares a number of characteristics with BOOST&Co’s interpretation of authenticity. Both describe people who are realistic, thoughtful, tolerant of uncertainty and guided by their own values and goals. Perhaps most importantly, they are accepting of themselves and others, and understand that it is better to be yourself than to try to be someone else.

Accelerated growth, less stress

Despite the benefits, few people feel comfortable enough to be authentic in the workplace throughout their career. “I don’t tire of new joiners saying how much they like ‘being themselves’ at BOOST&Co; it is often a new experience for them,” Bingham says.

Most people have to learn to be authentic. This may seem counter-intuitive, but according to Joseph, you must know yourself and own yourself before you can be yourself. “That’s hard work and no mistake, but look at the outcome: greater productivity, accelerated growth and less stress,” Bingham says.

What would Shakespeare have made of it all? Back in the early 17th century, his audience would have understood Polonius to mean that Hamlet needed to be financially secure in order to be useful and good. Modern audiences tend to interpret his remark as a plea to Hamlet to be himself. At BOOST&Co, both interpretations have their place.

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