Moan, moan, moan ... the change management industry doesn't comprehend change ... moan, moan, moan ... recruiters have developed socio-technological constructs and methods that actively prevent them from finding the type of candidate employers are looking for ... moan, moan, moan ... models of personality aren't worth the paper they are printed on ... moan, moan, moan ... 

That's what my wife tells me my LinkedIn posts read like. She says, "it's all very well to complain, but where are your answers?"

Well, OK then....

Nobody is an Island

When people talk about organisational change, they generally mean changing the behaviour of the organisation on a wide socio-technological scale, introducing new cultural modes of behaving and new ways of doing things (systems and processes). They don't actually realise that the most important point of change is themselves. You cannot be a static island when everything else is fluidly swimming about around you. You will end up having your shores slipping away, your habitat exposed and your relevance blown away by ever-increasing turbulent winds.

We have slipped into a mindset that people should be "authentically themselves" at work, which, for me, suggests we should always guard against our core-self being changed by the chaotic ambiguity of change-based stresses and emotions swirling around us. I don't think it is a particularly helpful image. Flexibility of self is as natural to us as breathing. We constantly differentiate between requirements to be caring, forceful, helpful, demanding, relaxed, energetic, studious, active (and many more) during everyday activity. We make snap behavioural decisions thousands of times without any cognitive or psychological stress. We switch between different personas often and without a second thought. Somehow this has been forgotten in a desperate rush to discover our real, authentic selves! And that's not good. 

In the challenging conditions of change, we need to reflectively create ourselves as part of the wider change project. Which means reflecting on the turn to authenticity and why it's become so popular. 

The Dirty Reality of Change

In a number of posts, I have employed Bridgman, Cummings and Brown's work to critique the static models of organisational change and underpin my argument that the "default state" of many organisation during and after change is an ambiguous, uncertain, contradictory and paradoxical dystopia where nothing gets done properly, everything requires complex workarounds to function, and toxic cultures are staffed by disenchanted employees, confused specialists and burnt out managers. While I may well be waxing lyrical and deliberately polemic when I discuss this, accepting that it is an inherent element of change is necessary if the change is to be successful. I'll try to explain. 

When you read the general news, 95% of it is bad, despite, for the vast majority of the people on the planet not experiencing anything bad on that, or any given, day. When you read sites like LinkedIn, 95% of the posts are positive, which might suggest the opposite, that the vast majority of the workforce is experiencing conditions very alien from those being espoused. The historical low engagement rates and rising levels of cynicism suggest as much. The gap between the utopian pronouncements of the business media and messy reality of organisational life is considerable for many, many people. A lot of it is caused by change, both as a process and due to the simple fact that change is a constant companion of modern life. Yet we aren't turning to face it! Strange!

Here is a quick (and glib) framework of what the reality of organisational change looks like for many unfortunate people. 

  1. Presentation of the desired final "utopian" state of the organisation
  2. The ambiguous, uncertain, contradictory and paradoxical state of the organisation during change
  3. OMG, is this what we're left with???!!!

The utopian organisation is a ridiculous construct, completely unachievable at real world level, yet sold by consultant after consultant. The process of trying to reach it adds layer after layer of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, often creating unresolvable organisational paradoxes in which the employees must do the exact opposite of what was expected to actually achieve any progress. With 66.6%+ of change failing to deliver, that's then pretty much what most of us are left with. Chaos, confusion, paradox, angst, anger, frustration, irony, cynicism, sarcasm. 

And we're expected to remain centred and stable islands in the middle of it all? Really!!!

Changing Yourself

The trendiest trend of populist management thought is that you should be an authentic self at work, to bring all that you are to the workplace, deliver your true  and core self, to be completely present at work. That way you add meaning and purpose to your work, becoming a committed, energetic, loyal and hard-working employee, happy with your work and happy with yourself. And supposedly use that stability to cope with all the change and confusion. 

I'll let you into a dirty little secret. The previous big, happy promise of the culture movement school was that strong organisational culture would deliver committed, energetic, loyal and hard-working employees. And it failed absolutely, delivering ironic, ambivalent, Machiavellian game-playing cynics instead. Plus a good number of burnt-out zombies. As a response, we've been told to be authentic instead. 

That's really no surprise. The concept of authenticity emerged out of the recognition that all cultural and social meaning was absurd.  If everything external is absurd, then the only reaction is to turn inwards to find meaning. Hence, authenticity. QED and all that!

However, we're being sold a bit of a dud! Most of the literature I read about authenticity in the popular press has this touchy-feely subtext, the notion that by accessing your inner feelings and emotional intelligence, and using them to expose your core self and all its vulnerabilities, you are somehow going to be a better leader, manager or employee. That by identifying, reflecting and focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses you'll be more likely to succeed. 

The godfathers of authenticity (Socrates, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche if you're asking), would be spinning in their graves if they heard all this. In conditions of cultural transformation, you don't reveal your inner self to all and sundry! That's madness! Creating your "self" is your lifetime project, your own personal work of art that consumes you. It needs to be beautiful and wonderous. Not a tawdry roadshow to be gawped at by colleagues and picked apart by organisational psychologists!

Part of the project of authenticity, to live the examined life, is the construction of personas, masks, identities and incommunicados that protect the "self" during the serious process of its creation. You should embrace artificiality, irony, playfulness, drama, and the joy of the masquerade and carnivalesque in the project. They can all help you develop your best possible "self". Otherwise, why bother? If you are an open book of everyday worries, mundane depressions and emotional vulnerabilities, how are you interesting? Where's the art in you?

To be authentic, embrace the greats of authenticity. Socrates lived a whole life "coloured by irony." Kierkegaard hid his process of self-creation behind the most bewildering array of pseudonyms, masks, fashions and foppery possible. Nietzsche wanted to dance and sing! Create yourself joyfully.  Be David Bowie, Prince, Madonna, Lady Gaga. Wear masks. Embrace artificiality. Change personas. Experiment. Play around with ideas about who you want to be. Energetically enthuse. Dance, sing, act, improvise. Survive conditions of constant change by being constantly ready to change yourself.