The Authenticity Paradox

26 October 2022

As part of Black History Month 2022, we hear from Aston Pryce, Head of Bids at Leonardo’s site in Luton, about racism he has faced during his career and how such adversity has shaped his professional and personal priorities.

Increasingly in corporate environments, people are being told to “be authentic” and “bring their whole selves to work”. This means showing up as yourself, acting at work the way in which you do outside work, and feeling no pressure to be anything other than who you are. While this is a worthy aspiration, the reality of it is somewhat different, which I can testify to personally.

Racism continues to exist, and I have been subjected to it at points in my working life which began as an apprentice at Leonardo in 2009. I have worked in various roles in the intervening 13 years and have become a father of two. I identify as mixed race, although I’m often racialised as black, which is an important nuance. My father is black Caribbean, and my mother is white English.

Lots of research suggests that if you’re able to be authentic at work, you have higher levels of wellbeing, you have a greater sense of belonging, resulting in increased confidence and the ability to do your job well. From an organisational point of view, that also leads to better individual and collective performance, which can be underpinned by authentic leadership.

But being yourself massively depends on whether or not your values are shared with the values, priorities and beliefs of the organisation that you work in. And usually, that belief system, structure and environment are driven by the dominant group at work. If your values don’t align with that dominant group, this can cause conflict at a personal level and friction in the business level.

This is backed up by research studies which indicate that many ethnically diverse people are or feel unable to bring their whole selves to work because their whole selves aren’t necessarily celebrated or aligned with the dominant group.

Many of those norms, behaviours and attributes of the majority view can make it very difficult for people who are ethnically diverse to have the confidence to be themselves at work. Invariably, you tend to adjust who you are, how you present yourself, and how you try to fit in that culture.

A lack of role models

When I joined the apprenticeship scheme, I noticed that out of 30-35 people on the scheme, two of us were ethnically diverse. Everyone else was white. I then realised that there were very few ethnically diverse role models throughout the business, particularly in senior management positions. There were very few people who looked like me, sounded like me and had the same experiences as me. So it’s difficult to be authentic and speak your truth in an environment where you look at the higher levels up above, and there’s no one there that looks like you. This is where the impact of cultural affinity, similarity bias and unconscious bias come into play.

Research about talent pipelines suggest that people tend to favour and promote people who are like them and remind them of themselves. As an apprentice with big dreams of what I wanted to try and achieve in the business, I looked up at the management teams and the people above me, and saw no one like me. Without precedent, I was thinking “it’s going to be very difficult for me to get there. What makes me special to be the one that’s going to do it?” So that has an impact in how you present yourself. You start to look and say, “what do I need to do to break that mould and move forward?” And already you’re moving away from being from being authentic.

While having a more diverse workforce helps organisations improve, if ethnically diverse people aren’t in management roles, are we really making the environment more welcoming for those people that don’t feel as though they fit?

Subtle and unsubtle racism

During my early career, but something which still happens on occasion even now, I engage with customers or colleagues exclusively on the phone. Invariably, you end up meeting them in person and they say “Oh, I didn’t realise you were black on the phone” or “I didn’t know it was you I was talking to you.” Instantly, you’re reminded that you’re different and that maybe you don’t fit.

A few years ago, I started growing my hair out. The first time I came in wearing my hair as an afro, I had comments such as “here’s Michael Jackson”, and had people trying to touch my hair. These incidents remind you that you’re not really made for that environment, which makes it difficult to be authentic. I can’t be myself when I know that even something like wearing my hair in a certain style is going to encourage attention. It’s something else I need to think about and deal with, while trying to do my job.

I’m not saying that these things are always malicious and that people are deliberately saying them to cause offence or harm, but they happen and they have a real impact.

Examples in the work environment

Earlier in my career, I had a passion for sales, and worked hard to establish myself in the sales team – many of whom are ex-military, end-users or have a background in that area, which I didn’t have. I worked really hard to get the role, taking on a Masters to get my foot in the door. I was the only ethnically diverse person in the sales team when I joined and throughout the four and a half years in that department. I knew I would face some workplace challenges – things my white colleagues wouldn’t need to deal with.

As I prepared for my first sales trip abroad, which was to an Eastern European country, I did some due diligence, checking the prevalence of discrimination or racism, and identifying the places and parts of the country where maybe I shouldn’t really go. I had some concerns which I explained to my line manager. But these concerns were immediately rebuffed. He said “you’re absolutely fine; you’ve got nothing to worry about.” After working so hard to get my dream role, I couldn’t risk pushing back for fear of losing my opportunity.

If my manager had said, “I’m listening to your concerns, and maybe this trip isn’t right for you,” that would have been the perfect response and reassured me that I belong. Listening is really important; taking that time to listen to what someone says and putting them first.

Another time on a US work trip, we had a nice hire car, with everyone taking turns drive. My colleagues couldn’t understand why I was really reluctant to drive, because of the number of black people who are stopped and shot by police in the US. They kept saying “you’ll be fine, drive it. It’s not a problem. It’s all good.” It made for an uncomfortable environment with my colleagues, which isn’t useful either. It’s about people having that sort of awareness. On the same trip, a pickup truck drives past and there’s a few guys on the back. They see me, they slow down and shout the N word at me. I’m used to it and we get it. Lots of people have experienced it. My colleagues didn’t know what to say. It was never spoken of again.

All these things make it very difficult to be authentic, knowing that when you tried to bring your whole self to work and talk about who you are, you’re penalised for it, or you are concerned that it’s going to damage your career or harm you as an individual, in terms of your standing in the organisation – you don’t want a reputation for being a troublemaker.

Unintended assimilation

All these things make it very difficult to be authentic. You tend to assimilate; to try and protect yourself, to dilute who you are, to fit in with the group. This is something that isn’t unique to me.

The Fawcett Society published a study this year focusing on the experiences of ethnically diverse women in the UK workplace. 61% of them reported having to change themselves to fit in at work. 26% talked about changing their hairstyle to fit into a more Eurocentric view of professionals, and 22% changed the name they are known by at work or accept people mispronouncing it.

I’ve experienced this too, in terms of my hair, which may seem like quite a mundane thing to keep mentioning. But for most of my career – for at least a decade – I’ve kept the same very very short haircut, because on many occasions I’ve been told that my hair is unprofessional, it’s messy, it doesn’t look right. And so questioning my natural hair essentially says I don’t fit in that group; I don’t fit in that Eurocentric view of what ‘professional’ means.

This makes it difficult for me to be me in the workplace. So you change, dilute and fit yourself around the culture – to pursue your career, make your everyday life easier and get through each day. It’s really difficult.

Slowly diluting who you are

These elements can have a real impact on your mental health, self-worth and identity. It’s a slow dilution of who you really are. There is a huge burden and I’ve carried this burden in my mind for a very, very long time, which has probably influenced the way that I am right now.

My kids are mixed and I know they’re going to go through these challenges. I’m there raising them, telling them they should be proud of who they are, their culture and where they’re from. Be proud to represent their heritage. Be unapologetic about who they are. Yet I’m at work doing the polar opposite. And those two things cannot exist at the same time. So I have to change.

Today, my values and who I am is more important to me than my perceived success at work. Now I feel more confident because I’ve decoupled those two elements. I appreciate it’s difficult for people who are worried as they try to progress their career. It’s still really hard to call out certain things.

Allies who listen

While racism is not as overt as perhaps it used to be, it continues to happen and has a huge impact on people – both on those who speak out and those who don’t.

For those who are allies, or who don’t understand these experiences, they need the awareness to take a step back and think about some of these issues. When we see microaggressions, call it out; not just from an ethnicity point of view, but wider than that.

Try and provide safe spaces for people to actually talk. When people are mentioning things, don’t instantly rebuff them; take a second to actually listen. There might be something deeper that is driving some of their questions and behaviours.

Signs of positive change

Within Leonardo, I’m seeing some positive advances in addressing these challenges. The creation of the Ethnicity Inclusion network group is a safe space for people to engage with us, and talk these things through. We’re here to listen and help, which will help try and turn the corner a little bit.

It was wonderful to be in the Luton office recently and see all the new apprentices and graduates, with people from different cultures working together. Seeing that in the early careers community was amazing. As a comparison to the environment when I joined, it’s moving in the right direction of being more representative of the local area.

I guess my concern is how that change is happening throughout the organisation, top to bottom. It’s great we’re doing it in the early careers pipeline, but what are we doing to address that throughout the different positions and levels? I still don’t see those visible role models that perhaps people need to have the confidence to push on.

Things are changing slowly but surely, and our network group is there to try and push that further. We need to encourage those conversations more and support people accordingly. Through various events we organise, and materials we share, we encourage people to engage with the information and drive that self-learning and understanding.

Creating an inclusive and supportive environment through Network Groups

Creating an inclusive and supportive environment through Network Groups

At Leonardo, our network groups are the place for like-minded people and their allies to come together, help shape engagement and lead associated educational initiatives with all our people to deliver an inclusive and consistent experience for everyone in the UK.