Thursday, April 3, 2008

Authenticity at Work (and Famous Folks, installment #2)

“B,” one of my faculty, whose field is diversity and inclusion in the workplace, gave a seminar the other day. He talked about authenticity – when you are respected and “included” at work, you can be yourself, thus bringing all your abilities to the aid of your team and your task.

Sounds good, and it reminded me of two instances – one that supports B’s idea and one that doesn’t.

In the early 90s at the IC2 Institute, a team gathered to write a follow-up proposal to the Air Force. We decided to sit at a table in the upstairs gallery. As the group trooped through the gallery door, “G,” a woman in the group, was chatting about a sociologist who’d showed that when a business meeting happens at a rectangular table, people tend to sit across from someone they’re sexually attracted to. Lost in her academic mode, our teammate wrapped up this story just as she sat at the table across from E, another fellow in our group. No irony, no embarrassment, she was just oblivious.

A charming lack of self-consciousness on her part, and an interesting demonstration that academics don’t always connect highfalutin’ peer-reviewed research to their own daily lives.

Other team members, however, did notice what she’d done. They stifled giggles, rolled their eyes comically, shot meaningful glances to each other. One, standing behind G, enjoyed a big, silent belly-laugh. E was amused and struggled to contain himself.

This was a group that was willing to communicate on many levels, and felt easy doing so. They were also, apparently, committed to not ridiculing G, a good (and very attractive and very married) colleague who brought great expertise in the area of the proposal.

As we settled down to business, communication flowed freely, leading to an idea and a proposal that won a three million dollar grant from AFOSR.

2nd instance: My daughter Gina was writing a school report on the old bluesmen of Texas. She showed me one of her source books. I noticed an error in the book.

“Gina, these two captions are reversed,” I said. “This photo is Mance Lipscomb, not that one.”

“How do you know?” she reasonably asked.

“I knew Mance Lipscomb.”

“Daddy, you didn’t.”

Ah, but I did. Mance performed at the old Armadillo World Headquarters back around 1971. The man had no flash at all; he just sat in a wooden chair at the front of the stage and played great music. Mance was entirely authentic. He was used to playing on his front porch with friends and visitors, playing a bit, chatting a bit, sipping some lemonade. That style didn’t change when he sat before an audience of hundreds.

In that spirit, I wandered up to the stage to ask him to play a particular song. Well, he said, he knew a version of the song that might not be familiar to me, and he’d got it from a different source than Robert Johnson had, and.… His reply was turning into a lengthy discourse.

I had a ball, standing there conversing with Mance Lipscomb. The four hundred people behind me were getting mighty irritated; they wanted the show to go on.

Authenticity is great, but sometimes we have to adapt to circumstances. How, I wonder (and you might, too), could Lipscomb have continued to show his true self, and at the same time respect the fact that people paid for tickets and expected a “show”?