Have you heard yourself, or other leaders, saying “I was just being me,” or “this is my style” at work? Sounds like authenticity, right? However, it can also be a warning sign of TMA, Too Much Authenticity.
Professor Herminia Ibarra, author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), describes the Authenticity Paradox in the January-February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review.* She highlights two situations that all leaders face and how holding too firm to a self-image can derail success.
Moving into a new role.
Leaders face very different challenges as they move up the leadership pipeline. The scope of issues increase, the risks and rewards are greater and performance expectations change. What worked in the past may not work as well in the new situation. Leaders can stymie the growth and flexibility needed to succeed in their new roles if they don’t try out new responses and behaviors, even if they feel different than “who I am.”
Hearing and processing negative feedback.
Successful leaders often struggle to correctly interpret negative feedback. Not only is it hard to hear it can easily be misinterpreted as a style comment. Focusing on how well a style worked in the past can cause us to dismiss valid feedback or resist trying out new behaviors. New behaviors that may be different than “my view of myself” but important to success and growth.
What to do?
Authentic leadership and being true to yourself requires us to both know who we are and to be willing to revise who we are over time. Too much authenticity can be a code for an unwillingness to try out new behaviors. Ibarra suggests that we adopt a “playful frame of mind.” Actively try new ways of doing something, ask questions differently, work on new projects and explore what you learn about yourself. Stay true to your core values but purposely challenge your view of yourself with unfamiliar action and embrace what you learn.