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Are There Limits to Authenticity at Work?

In functioning groups, entitlements end where harm to others begins.

Key points

  • Conversations about authenticity and emotional inclusion at work often lead to a question of limits.
  • Workplaces can't regulate an individual's negative emotions directed at others, but they must prevent harmful behaviors.
  • Systemic practices such as chronically under-resourcing required work and a lack of transparency lead to toxic work cultures where harm thrives.
Unfriendly coworkers.
Source: Alphavector/Shutterstock

Conversations about authenticity and emotional inclusion at work often lead to a question of limits. Does support for authenticity and bringing your full self to work mean that anger, envy, resentment, or hate are OK, too?

Well. Workplaces can't regulate whether individuals feel other-directed negative emotions. But they should have rules and regulations to prevent behaviors that harm other individuals.

In functioning groups and societies, entitlements end where harm to others begins.

There will always be negative emotions. Some will be envious that a coworker is regularly invited to speak at conferences. Asking for professional development to help with one's own speaking is great. Spreading malicious rumors about that coworker to bring them down is not OK.

Some will get angry that another person was promoted over them. Channeling the disappointment into one's own performance or a job search is functional. If organizational decision-making lacks fairness and is based on inaccurate information, action to change promotion processes to increase objectivity and transparency is pro-organizational behavior, even if some may not like it. However, channeling one's anger into sabotaging the unit’s performance to make the new manager look bad is harmful.

Organizations are responsible to make every effort to prevent harm. And that does not just mean "rooting out bad people." First and foremost, it means taking an honest look at how an organization treats all people.

It takes two to tango

It takes two to tango, and workplace behavior that stems from other-directed negative emotions takes two—individual actors and organizational systems. While the focus is usually on individuals—"Julie" slammed the door and "Roger" made up lies—organizational structures and processes lead the dance and play the music.

In some cases, organizational shortcomings elicit negative emotions and harmful behaviors directly. In other cases, they create environments and systems in which harm thrives—like mold in damp places.

  • Organizational systems may elicit negative emotions by intentionally not filling positions and forcing individuals into overwork. The resulting angry conflict between coworkers is secondary to systemic harm.
  • Organizational systems may encourage management by fear and internal competition based on the erroneous assumption that these increase motivation. The resulting backstabbing is secondary to systemic harm.
  • Organizational systems may chronically under-resource the required work. The resulting "hunger games" behavior is secondary to systemic harm.
  • Organizational systems may lack transparency. The resulting rumor mill is secondary to systemic harm.
  • Organizational systems may support and promote overconfident egotism at the expense of competence and integrity. The resulting snake pit culture is secondary to systemic harm.

Preventing harm from maladaptive behaviors

Of course, people also bring maladaptive personality characteristics and beliefs, with accompanying emotions, to work. If negative characteristics are demonstrably related to poor performance (such as arrogance in leadership) organization legally can and must screen out based on these.

Yet screening can only go so far, and in many cases, those inclined to envy will feel envy and those inclined to arrogance will feel superior to others. Because of this, organizations are responsible for creating systems of transparency and justice to prevent individuals from moving from those inclinations to enacting harm. For example, some people might be sexist, but research shows that they can control their bias and abstain from sexist jokes in environments that discourage sexism.

Justice-focused practices such as equitable performance management systems and resource allocation procedures help decrease envy. Even more importantly, fair practices reduce the pay-off and hence discourage envy-based sabotage and other harmful behaviors. Supporting cooperation, teamwork, and clear systems of reward can help further reduce the harm that stems from self-centered and competitive emotions.

Organizations can't regulate whether someone feels angry or envious. But they can and must create procedures that prevent harm.

A version of this post was also published in the Best Work for Your Brain newsletter in July 2022.

More from Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D.
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