by Caterina Bulgarella with Forbes
At packed concert venues and movie theaters, Taylor Swift’s Eras journey captures it all. A walk-back through time in a mere three hours or less, the show is storytelling at its finest. What makes Swift a cultural phenomenon is not only her musical prowess and versatility but the trademark authenticity she puts on each note and verse.
The resulting 20-some-years tale is what everybody, from teenagers to adults, craves. The audience is one with her – her story, their story. Her voice, their voice. Some view it as another post-pandemic energy release. But cradled in that nostalgic vibe is a desire to belong and experience authenticity, not just regret.
As Swift re-writes the rules of show business, she fills a gap, the same one that today seems to mystify companies and workplaces. People seek a genuine connection – with themselves and their peers. But short of imposing in-office mandates, to many organizations, the idea of authenticity is largely a misdirected quest.
Today’s Workplace Lacks Authenticity
Swift’s events brim with energy, carried by the thunderous voices – some melodious, others less in tune – of thousands: the opposite of how work feels today. According to recent data, 60% of employees are emotionally detached, and one in five is miserable.
While companies may resist authenticity to build their unique brand or buy into the safe, old-fashioned office script, for employees, it is neither a whim nor a fad. On one hand, people seek meaning and purpose. On the other, an increasingly larger number want to be known (and valued) for what defines them and makes them special.
Among Zoomers, authenticity remains an unfulfilled need. Unable to experience work as a space to explore themselves, Gen-Z employees resent fitting in by speaking the same jargon, wearing the same mask and playing the same part. Take Hannah Shirley, a 23-year-old tech worker who recently went viral for pointing out that her job was “like a full-time acting gig.” She tik-toked one consequence of this: feeling “drained — especially mentally, sometimes even physically — from the character that …we play at work.”
Shirley’s take is spot-on – authenticity is linked to well-being and mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety. But it also affects employees’ ability to experience intrinsic motivation, energy, higher in-role performance and a sense of personal accomplishment.
Whereas companies may associate it with unbinding (e.g., employees emoting or saying whatever is on their minds), authentic behavior rests on self- and others-awareness.
“Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism? Like some kind of congressman?” sings Taylor Swift. She, the hero, puts herself out as the antihero.
It is this fearless digging into personal needs, values and aspirations, one’s own and others’, that ties authenticity to a sense of wholeness and wellness. Instead of yielding to external pressure, seeking a balance between personal and others’ priorities does more than reduce stress. As shared by Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, it also fosters presence and vision, even in the face of tremendous challenges.
If, for 60 million Zoomers who will enter the workforce in the next decade, authenticity is the demarcation line between experiencing work as depleting or fulfilling, it behooves companies to figure out how they can create their own Eras journey.
Activating Authenticity At Work
What happens during an Eras event that makes it so engaging? There is realness, empathy, kindness, listening, a narrative (or journey-like) space big enough for all to partake and feel whole with oneself and others. The whole experience is devoid of pretension. Take this recipe and break it into three precepts – avoid alienation, increase authentic living and balance external pressure – and you have a roadmap for creating an Eras-like workplace culture.
Avoiding Alienation. Asking employees to endorse values and behaviors inconsistent with their ethics generates alienation, the opposite of authenticity. Like the sense of realness and lack of pretension at Eras events, people want their work life to be honest and free of epistemic inconsistencies – say what you mean, mean what you say.
If it is imperative for organizations to articulate a core set of values, putting those values into practice is even more critical. Likewise, companies must open a dialogue with employees about their respective ethical principles. In times of constant change and growing ambiguity, to avoid sham practices, creating learning fields is as important as setting goalposts. Values can serve both objectives. As goalposts, they shape the organization’s compass. As learning fields, they become the ethical space where employees and the organization together explore what they believe in and what their beliefs and values mean in the face of endless turbulence and uncertainty.
Ultimately, whereas companies may be tempted to become more and more prescriptive to reduce the risk of today’s VUCA reality, creating an authentic culture, one in which people don’t lose their sense of self and connection, requires space for open-ended inquiry.
Increasing Authentic Living. Taking steps to minimize workplace alienation is critical. However, building authenticity is also about boosting authentic living. In Eras concerts, next to the realness Swift projects, there is empathy, listening and a growth arch wide enough for all to experience an evolution. Put those ingredients into the workplace, and they translate into purpose, empathy, learning, transformative growth and inclusion.
Does authenticity require a purpose statement? Not necessarily, but it presupposes a sense of purpose. For employees, connecting with their growth potential vis-à-vis their most genuine aspirations is a prerequisite. Traditionally, growth at work would mean creating linear career paths with enough upward trajectory. But, in an authentic culture, it presupposes designing impact journeys that help people integrate needs and transform their sense of self.
Why we work is important but how work changes us is more important.
The path to transformation goes both inward and outward. “Empathy – says Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft – is not a soft skill… it’s the hardest skill we learn—to relate to the world, to relate to people that matter the most to us.” Authenticity is a learning process that unfolds through empathy and listening, but also one that rests on openness and inclusion. Accepting and owning our own uniqueness is part of accepting and celebrating that of others.
For organizations, building authentic living means designing a variety of impact journeys, avoiding survivalism, fostering empathy and listening practices, expanding representation and promoting equity and equality while building trust and psychological safety.
Balancing External Pressure. How can we thread a sense of authenticity into a culture that demands perfection or exceptionalism? How can employees hold on to their sense of self in a work environment that constantly reinforces the primacy of specific characteristics and behaviors (e.g., assertiveness, height, extraversion etc.)? In part, the weight of these external pressures decreases as the opportunities for authentic living in the organization expand. In part, balancing them entails switching mindsets – from perfection to curiosity, from being afraid of failure to continuous learning, from holding tight to our truths to humility and so on.
One area in which this switch must happen is talent, including the type of skills and training organizations look for and the processes they use to manage performance (e.g., goals, incentives, etc.). But it is also a switch that involves leadership, and the role models it offers. After all, authenticity is not about defeatism or indulgence but the recognition that workplaces can be much bigger than they’ve ever been.
You’re beautiful / Every little piece, love don’t you know? / You’re really gonna be someone / Ask anyone – Swift sings. The music fades in the background as people walk away toward their daily lives – holding on to their Eras bracelets like superpowers.