Performing Strategic Authenticity in Professional Environments

So your company is all about racial justice and you, after months of trying to get noticed and helped.

How to manage people’s perception of who you are and remain authentic when your authenticity is penalized by the nature of your workplace. For a lot of Black people, our authentic selves are deeply embedded in our language, the way that we speak and make metaphors of the the world around us. And those are the very things that we leave at home before we enter the work atmosphere.

So if we can’t be authentic with our language without being penalized, how do we begin to bring the rest of our authenticity to our professional lives? We know that we can’t go into professional settings with our authentic selves and reap the benefits that are supposed to come along with authenticity because many of those professional spaces are hostile to our language, our style of dress, our foods, our very culture.

If we’re keeping it 100, being Black at work doesn’t mean that you’re the same Black person at work as you are with your family or with your friends. If you make the mistake of thinking that you’re just being authentic at work, you will immediately put yourself at a disadvantage. You’re immediately playing yourself.

So what you need to figure out as a Black person in the workplace is what parts of yourself are non negotiable. Which parts of your authentic self do you absolutely always have to move with, knowing that you’re going to have to sacrifice some part of yourself to get ahead at work, or even just to get things done.

The Truth About Authenticity
The jig is that all this rhetoric about authenticity doesn’t apply to Black folx in the same way because what authenticity really is, is a perception. It’s just a term we use to help us manage relationships with less energy on our end. Everything about authenticity is only ever going to be perceived authenticity. Perception is just another person’s interpretation of the performance that you’re projecting, and you’re always projecting a performance of some kind, whether you realize it or not.

Everything is perceived. Everything you projecting becomes a perception, so even your true authentic self will only ever be a perception of that true self as its interpreted by the other person. And perception is always filtered through people’s own projections of themselves, their beliefs, their identities. So what you may be projecting as a playful Black womanhood may be perceived by someone else as something completely different or wildly similar. Your projection is always being perceived and interpreted by the people watching you – your coworkers, your managers, your peers, your boss, the board, the customer, the client.

Understand How Perception Works
Now what do you do when your non-negotiable authentic parts clash with the values of the organizations that you’re in? Remember, all of this is a perception, so when you understand how to manage how people perceive you and how to project the right image that will line up with what they know what to perceive, then you will be able to use your Blackness as an advantage.

People will try to mislead you about things in the organizations and use their corporate terms to box you into a corner. But what you do when you get placed in that box is to paint it into an image than will be perceived as something that will be of value to them while being, first and foremost, an advantage to you.

Now Carla Harris, Managing Director at Morgan Stanley, has done many talks about how she used perception management to level up in her firm. It’s a mix of language and performance that is very much rooted in authentic parts of yourself. But there are also studies about how people perceive and assume things about other people based on their race, their gender, their height, their weight, their dress, the way they speak, and more. All of it comes together in a battle between your perception of who you are and other people’s perception of you and your ability to leverage both of them to get to where you’re trying to go.

Managing Perceptions
If this seems like a lot of work, you’re right. It is part of what we call the Black Tax and you will have to learn to juggle perception alongside your work. What people are doing with the authenticity movement is just selecting the authentic parts of themselves to bring to the forefront because it is easier to perform something authentic to you that it is to contort your entire being into something that is inauthentic altogether. You can’t escape the performance, because everyone is performing, but you can make it work for you.

They key to managing perceptions is to perform something consistently and repetitively and it turns out the easiest way to maintain that performance is root it in something you already do and you already are. And that’s what makes authenticity the buzzword, even though we’re never looking at the true authentic thing, just the performance of it.

As people who are working and doing business in environments that are hostile to your culture, hostile to your upbringing, hostile to your ways of thinking and being, you’re projecting and performing to manage others’ perception of who you are. That perception is evoked by whatever you’re performing.

You need to be aware of your endgame at every level of your life in order to effectively manage those perceptions. Whatever that looks like for you is something you need to get clear about first so you can use that clarity to maneuver people’s perceptions of you to take your career and business to the next level.

For people who come from the cultures that we come from that are completely different from the companies we work in and do business with, we don’t have the luxury of just being authentic. We have to be very intentional about the perceptions people have about us and the performances we have to engage in the maintain the perceptions that will be beneficial to us, to our endgame, and our communities.

As always, if you need support figuring any of this out, head over to the Kabuvu tribe and join our mailing list to get access to coaches, courses, and resources that will get your perception performances nice and tight.

One thought on “Performing Strategic Authenticity in Professional Environments

  1. This line came across strongly, because it is so helpful.

    “People will try to mislead you about things in the organizations and use their corporate terms to box you into a corner. But what you do when you get placed in that box is to paint it into an image than will be perceived as something that will be of value to them while being, first and foremost, an advantage to you.”

    Thank you for this. It paints things in a better perspective

    This is so good. Looking forward to more.

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