HOW MANY OF YOUR LEADERS and colleagues are really being themselves at work, all the time? And what about you? Or is there some role playing going on? Does it feel like people are wearing masks to disguise their true selves?
We might not like to admit it, but we all wear masks to pretend to be someone or something else. Let’s face it, the stakes can be high. Performance at work means reputations are always on the line. Sometimes its lower risk to hide behind a communication that we think other people “want to hear”, rather than put our true feelings on the table and risk rejection or failure. This is human nature and something we learn from an early age to survive in our complex social environment.
Why is this important? At the end of the day it’s about performance. How much better can we tackle the really tough business challenges when we are connected with each other on a human level, rather than just as “colleagues in roles”. How much more easily will we trust each other and take risks on behalf of each other? How does this ultimately impact performance outcomes?
In Japan, they call the mask “Tatemae”, which hides the real person, “Honne”. For all their recent problems, at the heart of the Japanese economic success story is their cultural focus on relationship building and “getting back to Honne” – there is a lack of tolerance of Tatemae and strong peer pressure to call it out. There is high value placed upon getting to know each other on a deeper level. Common business practices include socialising with work colleagues for long, drunken evenings, and weekends at hot springs where they will bathe naked together – to them even clothes are part of our character costume.
There are 2 challenges with “role play”. (i) Acceptance – in some businesses there is total denial that masks are being worn – it can feel a bit like the “Stepford Wives”. (ii) Change – how do you make a big shift when these habits are deeply set? Especially when you and the business are under so much pressure.
For both the answer is simple. It’s about your leadership behaviour and the quality of conversations that you are having – with yourself as a leader, with your colleagues, and with your business.
1. Your behaviour is determined by how you are feeling inside – how connected you are feeling with your inner self? How much are you challenging yourself on this? How much time are you setting aside to regenerate yourself as a human being, doing the things you love most, to reinforce your sense of self, and remind yourself how important it is to remain true to yourself?
2. How hard are you really challenging each other as a leadership team, and holding each other to account for your behaviour? What quality time and space are you creating for these conversations and this trust building? At work and also beyond?
3. How are you projecting this behaviour and the importance of it to your wider business – what communication and interaction are you creating that will make people feel more comfortable to be themselves?
Of course this is all common sense, but the issue is that most of us are just too busy – as businesses and as individual leaders – and so we don’t invest in this time and these conversations. And the mask wearing, roleplaying and sub-optimal performance continue.
It takes serious commitment, time and energy to make this kind of change – there are no “short cuts”. But after years of cutting costs and streamlining, more and more leaders and businesses are now looking at this as an opportunity to really leverage their assets and make a step change in their performance and competitiveness.
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Stuart Pickles is the former FD of Foster’s EMEA. He now runs AimHigherLeadership.com and is blogging regularly for Financial Director