7 mins

Exponents of a more strategic approach to workplace authenticity think it could help bridge geographic and generational gaps.

When the Bay Area consultant Mike Robbins implored workers to “bring your whole self to work” in a 2015 TEDx Talk, he introduced a paradigm that would come to dominate corporate culture for a decade. 

Robbins defined his credo as an invitation to “show up fully, vulnerably, and authentically” to colleagues instead of “trying to hide who we are” on the job. Much like the rise of open-concept offices and the decline of corporate dress codes, this notion of workplace authenticity spread widely – another hallmark of the Silicon Valley-led push toward less stuffy and more egalitarian workplace cultures across industries, which especially took root in tech.

But today’s workplace looks much different than it did in the mid-2010s, especially for software developers. According to a 2023 Stack Overflow survey, nearly 84% of developers worldwide work partly or entirely remotely. This means that today’s developers must figure out how to be their “whole selves” at work without compromising professionalism, while also working at a physical remove from their colleagues. 

It also means that most engineering managers bear the unique responsibility of modeling workplace-appropriate behavior to junior reports without the benefit of in-person interactions. It’s up to managers to demonstrate a communication style that facilitates genuine and meaningful workplace relationships, without distracting from the shared goals of a professional environment. Amid this evolving corporate backdrop, a new research paper argues for a more measured approach that balances elements of genuine interpersonal openness with the need to present favorably to colleagues. They call it “strategic authenticity”.

What is strategic authenticity?

In the abstract for her paper, “Strategic Authenticity: Signaling Authenticity Without Undermining Professional Image in Workplace Interactions,” author Julianna Pillemer describes strategic authenticity as “a self-presentational approach that involves enacting behaviors intended to increase colleagues’ perceptions of one’s authenticity while accounting for individual and contextual factors that influence one’s professional image.” 

In other words, Pillemer – an assistant professor of management and organizations at NYU Stern School of Business – recommends that workers strike a balance between being vulnerable and transparent in their conversations with colleagues and putting their best professional foot forward. Strategic authenticity is a framework for curating the version of yourself you bring to the office (or Slack channel) in a way that keeps everyone focused on the tasks at hand. 

In simplest terms, it’s a directive to be selectively genuine and emotionally honest, opting for transparency specifically in contexts that do not undermine organizational norms or risk compromising a colleague’s trust.

As Pillemer summed it up in an interview with Charter, “Think about, ‘Do I really need to bring all of this to the workplace? Or can I do this in a way where I still feel like myself, but in a way that still doesn’t violate anyone else’s expectations or norms of me in any dramatic or offensive way?’”

Drawing the line

Eric Davison, an Iowa-based Agile coach who works primarily with teams of developers, cosigns Pillemer’s approach. In his view, it is not only possible but preferable to be true to oneself at work without crossing the line into unprofessionalism by going against the cultural norms and expectations established by the organization. 

“Remember, we are in polite company at work, and mannerisms or habits that are unacceptable should not be displayed,” Davison says. He defines unacceptable workplace behavior as actions that risk taking the focus away from work “and putting it on yourself or another employee,” such as oversharing about one’s personal life, prying into the affairs of colleagues, or divulging professional insecurities.  

Davison recalls one particularly memorable instance of workplace oversharing that occurred after his team hired a programmer on the basis of a strong phone interview, only to realize after the fact that the programmer was far less skilled than they had seemed by phone. “A couple of days later, the person confided in one of the other programmers and said ‘I am sorry I don't know very much; I had someone else do the phone interview so I could get this job,’ Davison says. “Needless to say, we had to let the person go.” Although the programmer’s lack of qualifications would almost certainly have cost them their job sooner than later, it was their workplace confession that ultimately backfired first.

While most workplace overshares are likely less dramatic, the fear of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth at work can be detrimental to the company as a whole. Omar Kouhlani, the Washington D.C.-based CEO of Runmic – a platform that uses AI to analyze meetings and sales calls – understands strategic authenticity as an approach that can curtail this fear at the organizational level. The key is for managers and organizational leaders to establish clear, two-way communication about behavioral expectations and cultural norms up front. 

“‘Strategic authenticity’ might sound like an oxymoron at first, but cultivating it creates an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work without fearing they will say or do the wrong thing,” Kouhlani says, drawing on a near-decade of previous experience in engineering and management at Dropbox, Samsung Research, and Capital One. “Eventually, this will unlock deeper relationality and collaboration between people, resulting in greater success and unity over the long-haul within your organization.” 

Modeling strategic authenticity at a distance

There is also a generational element at play in conversations about authenticity and communication in the workplace. In a qualitative survey of 63 readers of the Pragmatic Engineer newsletter, Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boomer developers were asked how they view their Gen Z colleagues. 

One Boston-based engineering manager described today’s 20-something developers as “strong believers in radical transparency.” A senior DevOps engineer in Singapore similarly observed that their younger team members seemed unafraid to share their opinions, which garnered mixed reviews from older colleagues: “Some found that the Gen Z were too open, insensitive, and should be more sensitive of their environment, and of people hearing what they said.”

It’s difficult to gauge the extent to which Gen Z’s values are unique to their particular generational cohort (and not simply the inclinations that most young people tend to have when first entering their professional lives). 

However, it’s no secret that today’s newest crop of engineers bear the brunt of the potential downsides of remote work. With limited face-to-face job experience as compared with their older peers, Gen Zers may have less opportunity to develop meaningful connections with colleagues. They may also struggle to communicate in a way that strikes the right balance between the desire for radical transparency and the expectation of professionalism.

This is where managers must lead the way. “The right amount of authenticity will always be situational,” says Allan Vu, the Toronto-based founder and engineering manager of Work Remote Now!, a remote job board and recruitment service. “It's best to advise junior reports to know how to read the room” – to use social cues and situational context to help determine when it’s appropriate to speak out or be vulnerable, or when it’s better to stay quiet or listen.  

“This won't ever be fully clear for everyone, as some people are more socially aware than others, but that's okay,” Vu says. “As remote managers, we have to learn to deal with everyone's personalities on the team.” Regular feedback and leading by example are two ways managers can help their reports understand what is and isn’t acceptable.

It is also incumbent on remote managers to facilitate connection within teams, which not only strengthens relationships but solidifies communication standards and norms. “Building real relationships when there’s miles of empty space between coworkers is possible,” says Kouhlani. “Time blocking a few hours every week for team members to get together over video chat for coffee breaks, virtual lunches, or just the opportunity to decompress can help engineers get to know each other, share personal experiences, and cultivate a strong support system, just like they would in a conventional office environment.” 

With a bit of careful orchestration, even the most geographically dispersed and generationally diverse organizations can develop cultures in which communication that feels authentic – yet appropriate – will flourish.