Welcome Authenticity, Prepare for Innovation

There’s been a lot of chatter about authenticity in the workplace. Academic journals and business websites tout the importance of feeling comfortable enough at the office to “be yourself.”

Is this just another way of catering to millennial demands? Is it a step in a direction where anything goes, but nothing really gets done? Not exactly.

In 2010, IBM conducted a study of 1,500 CEOs from around the world. The tech giant wanted to find out what they considered the single most important characteristic for successfully navigating an increasingly complex world. Creativity won out over rigor, management discipline, integrity, and even vision.

Individuality is a necessary ingredient for creative thinking.”
—Anne Manning, Harvard instructor and founder of Drumcircle.

Anne Manning isn’t surprised. The Harvard instructor and founder of innovation and marketing firm Drumcircle looks at organizational issues through creative thinking, or the process of finding new solutions to intricate problems.

“And here’s the thing,” she stresses. “Individuality is a necessary ingredient for creative thinking.” 

The math is simple: Complicated problems demand innovative solutions. Innovative solutions require creative thinking. People don’t think creatively if they’re trying to fit into a mold. But how can that formula be applied in a corporate environment?

By the end of the twentieth century, Swedish researcher Dr. Göran Ekvall determined ten traits of a workplace that encourages creative behavior and performance. Some traits, like trust, are accepted today as essential features of any professional setting. Others—humor, liveliness, open debate, and idea time—have earned a bad rap. They’re often viewed not only as gratuitous, but sometimes detrimental to the bottom line.

What many managers overlook is the ability of laughter, constructive disagreements, and focused free time to produce positive, out-of-the-box results.

Stephanie Mardell, head of people at New York-based tech startup Button, has seen firsthand the power of letting people be themselves at work. The two-year-old company, which specializes in user-first mobile monetization, has raised more than $14 million in seed and Series A funding while nurturing authenticity behind the scenes.

Button’s core values encourage employees to “grow individually and organizationally” and “speak boldly and honestly.” In fact, the concept of individuality is so deeply rooted in Button that new employees are given a personal growth survey on their first day. The questionnaire determines each person’s unique motivators, and what makes him or her feel appreciated. This information is then applied to develop the best possible environment for each employee, among a variety of personalities and work styles.

“From day one, we focus on the individual path for growth, rather than a corporate ladder,” says Mardell. Stipends for coaching and training programs supplement “the freedom for employees to choose what will help them grow within the context of Button.”

They’ve also seen results with flexible work schedules; a budget to try out mobile apps on the market, in return for internal feedback; and unlimited vacation days, encouraged by a $500 individual travel bonus.

“Two-thirds of your waking life is spent in an office, so we want our employees to have healthy lifestyles and enjoy themselves. It will lead to a more productive workforce in the end,” says Mardell. 

As a startup, Button’s culture of authenticity is developing from the ground up. But, many established organizations are up against old ways of thinking. In a study with her colleague Susan Robertson, Manning found that the tension between people’s need for new ideas and fear of change was “frustrating (at best) and debilitating (at worst).”  

Manning and Robertson outlined seven ways to overcome that anxiety and create a safe space for new ideas to emerge—including “ensure leadership is on board,” “hire for different types of differences,” “change processes,” and, perhaps scariest of all for many organizations, “experiment.”

“Don’t be afraid!” Manning urges. “As the saying goes, ‘We tend to regret the things we didn’t do more than the things that we did do.’”

Two-thirds of your waking life is spent in an office, so we want our employees to have healthy lifestyles and enjoy themselves. It will lead to a more productive workforce in the end.”
—Stephanie Mardell, head of people at tech startup Button. 

Notably, Mardell is stumped when asked to share any failed corporate-culture initiatives. With a 0 percent nonregrettable turnover rate over two years and a Crain’s Best Place to Work title under Button’s belt, any long-forgotten missteps were reworked and converted to successes.

“You have to innovate on behalf of your people,” Mardell says. “If something doesn’t work, you can always go back to the way things were.” Though all evidence suggests that’s an unlikely scenario.

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