Updated: Aug 6, 2020
Learning how to "read a room" is a valuable social skill that can pay major dividends or cost you big in the communication stakes.
It's tough to be a square peg in a round hole, but how do you know you're the square peg? Authentic leadership begins with a good sense of self, yet it straddles reasonable adaptation to stay faithful, and "fit" a situation.
Being authentic is fundamental to building your personal and professional success. For leaders in particular it would help if your authenticity enabled you to master social codes and to exude executive presence, both of which can help to advance your career. But to do that you must know something very important — who are you?
What's your story?
Begin your journey to authenticity by taking a deep dive into yourself, and learn your story. How and where you grew up helps shape to you, as does your education, professional and personal experiences and relationships, and your failures and triumphs. Your values and beliefs are forged along the way, and they serve as a foundational part of your story. Take some time to self assess and revisit your story; you're worth it. Your authentic self will emerge as a set of core values and beliefs, which will serve as the rudder for your life.
We all want to be authentic, true to our values, but there are times when we can reasonably adapt to be more successful and achieve our goals. For example, a woman who grew up in a culture the Lewis Model would call reactive, introverted, silent, and respectful, might have a hard time being successful in a company culture where the best ideas come from heavily debated conference rooms. This individual may find it uncomfortable to "speak up" and openly promote her idea over others.
However, to succeed, she could consider adapting by respectfully asking to offer her idea during the debate. She could politely say, "Thank you, we have heard some interesting ideas today. I would like to offer my idea because I believe it could be a game-changer for our company." She listens, she's open to other ideas and is respectful in voicing hers. She may be out of her comfort zone for a moment, but she remains authentic to her values.
Read the room
Whenever you're trying to communicate, context is important. Some people have difficulty sensing potentially awkward vibes in a situation, which means they can't adapt, and consequently they may communicate badly or be otherwise unsuccessful. An example might be a graduate student who receives an interview for her dream job at one of the world's leading tech companies. She has brilliant technical skills and a reputation for being inquisitive and direct.
The candidate arrives at the interview in jeans, a hoodie, and flip-flops, and during a rare lunch interview with a very senior executive, she starts texting. The top executive asks the young recruit to tell her about herself. The candidate flippantly replies with one sentence, then pugnaciously asks the senior executive to speak about herself. She did not receive an offer. While the candidate might feel she is authentic with her casual dress and curt manner, she does not offer the respect and gravity the situation demands. She did not "read the room" correctly.
This young tech wanna-be should understand that in a job interview, even with a tech giant, you research the appropriate interview attire and dress accordingly. Her direct style of speaking and questioning comes across as disrespectful. Her social codes definitely need some fine-tuning.
The candidate needs to be more self-aware and understand how her behavior is perceived. Then, she will be able to stay true to herself but also adapt to the situation. For the next interview, she can make better choices in attire and be more mindful of her dialog style so that she is respectful and leaves a positive impression.
Being authentic is about knowing your story and relying on your core values to get you where you want to go. You are a work in progress, and you will continue to learn and expand your horizons. Your story is dynamic, and your values may evolve too.
Being successful is about being authentic and knowing when to reasonably adjust. You can put a square peg into a round hole if the hole is big enough, but it's still a square peg.