Sunday, 27 November 2011

Authenticity and vulnerability in the work place

Lana Del Rey seems to be getting people excited and outraged in equal measure. The story runs that she posted a Lo-fi video to her song ‘Videogames’ on Youtube (; upwards of 7 million people watched it, and she became hugely popular - so popular that when she made tickets available to a gig, they sold out in super-fast time.

The news of such commercial success on top of pro bono internet success has caused some to question her authenticity. Quite what authenticity one is seeking in the world of pop music is a question to which I have not yet found the answer, but it would appear that there are many (who knows actually how many) who feel some form of outrage that the free entertainment they experienced on Youtube was not the work of a talented young woman, working by herself, but rather the work of a talented young woman backed up by a team of professionals, expert in managing young musical talent.

If the concept of authenticity in this context is not exactly modern, then perhaps its interpretation is. Commercial success has always been underpinned by commercial savoir-faire, that usually involves outside input. I question the need to criticise others for seeking help outside of their own skill set, when that is manifestly the right solution to the situation they find themselves. Let us not forget that with the right team of people behind her, Lana Del Rey produced a chillingly good song, with a pretty good video.

All this hullabaloo reminded me of the stories one hears about the Early 20th Century obsession with amateurism in sport, and the idea that sport in its purest sense is the competition between two individuals, calling upon their innate talents, without recourse to anything as crude as training; sport as an aesthetic endeavour, and not one that should ever be used as a means of earning a living. Of course, the agenda in this matter was set by the well-off, who didn’t have to work, so had the time to engage in sporting activities that kept them fit, and to do it all for free. It became an inconvenient truth to discover that ancient Greek athletes trained full-time, and if they weren’t paid for their actual Olympic appearances, there were plenty of money making opportunities that followed their successes.

I have written before about the pressure we exert on junior doctors to be the people they will grow up to be, before they have actually done any growing up; in other words, to turn up to their first jobs as fully capable and competent professionals, who have already completed the maturation required to become a good doctor. As you may recall, I challenged the medical profession on this stance, arguing that it is an absolution of responsibility to young professionals to take no part in their personal growth, and that in reality, we should seize the opportunity to help young doctors blossom and grow, so that they can more easily become the best they can be.

I thought back to such thoughts at a recent conference I attended, where one of the themes I identified was ‘barriers to collaboration’ (it was happenchance - the conference itself was concerned with much loftier challenge) I was particularly struck by one chief executive, who’s trademark style is to disarm others with his openness, and give them the challenge of what to do with his vulnerability. It is powerfully disarming when he tells you something, and acknowledges that in essence if you want to, you could bury him; but actually what he would like you do, is to treat his act of openness as the gesture of comradeship it really is.

Another chap spoke about the work that he does helping teams communicate better together - essentially, his approach is to put the people he is working with in a room together, and make sure they understand that he is prepared to wait longer in silence than they are. Using this method, he either bluffs them or bores them into conversation. I have to wonder how sustained the changes are, but they seem to work in the short term at least.

These two men highlighted that one of the big challenges at work is to get individuals to confess to things they don’t want to confess, to people they don’t want to confess it to. Such reticence is borne out of a fear that they will show something of themselves against which they can be judged, or that they will display feelings and anxieties that mark them down as flawed or weak.

Is it me, or when we expect our colleagues and juniors to turn up for work as polished professionals, and not to expect that we will play any active role in their personal growth, are we sowing the seeds for adversarial, unsupportive, and uncollaborative work places?

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