JI Mohawk MainIt’s Monday morning, and it’s time to trade in your Mohawk for a more ‘palatable’ comb-over. Your latest tattoo (a mandala that inspires you to dream) is neatly tucked away under your crisp white shirt. Ankle bracelet removed, you push your standard-issue beige socks into black loafers. It’s time to switch off your inner self and turn on your corporate persona.

Successful businesses are ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’. They ‘do things differently’, or claim to. The driving force behind this success is a company’s employees – those who enter the product incubator daily in order to turn ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’ into verbs. Quite often, however, we expect ‘out-of-the-box thinking’, yet expunge any form of expression. How can we expect staff to reach their full potential, if we won’t allow them to bring their authentic selves to the table? Few companies will admit to any form of racial, gender or other forms of bias, but in focusing on compliance – have we lost sight of inclusion?

It’s easy to pay lip service to collaboration when those around the proverbial boardroom table all conform to our homogeneous version of what a team member ‘should’ look like. Critically, even great work environments (and their ‘dress codes’) put a lid on authenticity. Changing this will require managers to get comfortable with ‘different’ in all its shapes and forms – and the acceptance of several key principles:

Authenticity is not only good for people

The corporate world is fraught with categorisation – a sorting of who is good enough to play which role at which level. Companies aren’t allowed to (openly) make discrimination a part of that categorisation. But human nature dictates that what we see shapes what we think and what we think, in turn, filters how we see. The alchemy of perception is very difficult to dissolve – making the mistake of assuming that our perceptions reflect the truth even more so. In reality – there is a difference between a Mohawk and a comb-over. It’s called authenticity, and in the workplace, a Journal of Happiness study has found that the greater an employee’s feelings of authenticity, the better their job satisfaction, engagement, and self-reported performance.

Another study, cited by Harvard Business Review, involving two hundred and thirteen employees, saw a very clear theme emerge: being allowed the freedom to be authentic improves productivity, increases performance and success, and allows employees to exert less energy and time censoring or hiding themselves. Similarly, employees who spent less time and energy on ‘self-monitoring’ had more time and energy for focusing on the task at hand.

Authenticity is not only good for people – it’s good for business too.

JI Mohawk insetDifference is not division

Sadly, those who are ‘out of whack’ with what’s perceived to be ‘corporate’ are often seen as disruptive, and often by the very people who are responsible for supporting their careers. Different shouldn’t ever be disrespectful. It’s quite the opposite, actually, as it recognises an important truth: we can be united, yet not the same. That said, the caveat of balancing authenticity with a healthy respect for the people you are doing business with still applies.

The challenge for many organisations is “How do we support managers to lead with difference at the forefront of their minds?” Diversity Council Australia’s research sheds valuable light on the need for inclusive leadership and what it takes to build more inclusive leaders. Importantly – inclusive leadership isn’t built overnight. Leaders have a responsibility to develop and improve their inclusive leadership capabilities by honing a mindset that focuses on diversity and inclusion, while at the same time balancing client needs and expectations.

Inclusion not compliance

Today’s workplaces are strictly governed by legislation. There are obvious workplace requirements that need to be fulfilled, including preventing discrimination and harassment; ensuring flexible work options for all employees and addressing unconscious bias during the recruitment, retention and reward phases. But beyond compliance – most companies don’t actively pursue inclusion.

If they did, the Mohawk and the comb-over would work with each other towards a shared purpose – such as creating an exceptional client experience. It would be the outcomes they produce and the value they create for the organisation that would be important, and not how they looked when they were creating them. If they did, people would not need to use unconscious bias as an excuse for not engaging with and supporting each other in the workplace. If they did, diversity would not be associated with minority groups, but rather be something proudly worn on everyone’s lapels. If they did, businesses would get to truly unleash the potential of their employees and reap the benefits of an inclusive workforce. The world we live in is an exquisite potpourri of shapes, sizes, cultures and genders. Why does the workforce not mirror this montage?

The forward thinking companies of tomorrow will be those who see authenticity as an enabler. They’ll understand that allowing people to bring their authentic self to the table is what results in the best client experience. They won’t only welcome the Mohawk and comb-over… they’ll celebrate them!

By Abbie Wright and Matt Aberline