Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

“I find it very hard to take the “war for talent” seriously when I see so much talent that is already on the payroll being wasted.” – Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Your workforce is likely your biggest investment. One of the most valuable aspects of your workforce is the unique combination of knowledge, experience, ideas, information and perspective that each employee carries around in their head. Much of it is wasted.

I am painting with a broad brush here, maybe your organization is one of the exceptions, but the waste I see is massive. I find it very hard to take the “war for talent” seriously when I see so much talent that is already on the payroll being wasted.

Groupthink. Conformity. Organizational politics. Fear of failure. Lack of trust. Avoidance of conflict.

There are a lot of different dynamics involved, but the end result is waste. It takes the form of no candid conversations, employees keeping ideas and questions to themselves, employees that cannot, or do not know how to, disagree with each other, employees not taking initiative and ownership. I certainly bump into some managers and business leaders who know that this happens, but they always seem to assume the cause is some deficiency on the part of the employees.

I believe it is most often a consequence of the environment– organizational cultures where it is not entirely safe to be authentic.

Authenticity has certainly taken on buzzword status and it is thrown around today very casually as if it were a simple, safe and common thing. It is not. Authenticity is simply being true to who you are. And I would say that it is especially rare in the workplace. It is hard work and it always involves a certain amount of risk.

Each of us is unique. There has never been another being exactly like you and there never will be. Regardless of who you are, if you are being true to who you are at work, there are going to be times when you are in the minority, when you are the voice of dissent, when you are the oddball or the weirdo. It is simply a natural byproduct of human beings being authentic and honest with each other. Unfortunately, this is simply too risky in most organizations, so we have a lot of employees playing small, rounding off the corners and sharp edges, and meeting somewhere in the mediocre middle. We have employees far more invested in being appropriate than in being honest.

I have seen no shortage of organizations that claim to want greater initiative, creativity and innovation, but snuff it out as soon as it shows up. I have seen no shortage of organizations that talk a great game about inclusion but relentlessly reward conformity. I have seen no shortage of organizations that are basically operating with the emergency brake on, unable to let loose the full power of their workforce.

Again, your organization may be the exception, but here are a few questions to reflect on.

Is it safe to be unpopular in your organization?

And if you answer yes, how do you know?

Have you been unpopular?

If you have not been unpopular at one time or another, how do you know it is safe?

If you have not ever been unpopular in your organization, are you playing small?

Are initiative, risk-taking, failure and learning rewarded in your organization? How so?

Is it safe to fail in your organization?

Is it safe to disagree in your organization? Are people rewarded for respectful, constructive disagreement? Can employees disagree with their supervisor? How about their supervisors’ supervisor?

In my experience it is often more dangerous to be unpopular than it is to be a poor performer. Whether this is intentional or not, this is the kind of thing that seeps into your culture and has very real, and long lasting consequences.

I do not believe that you can have a healthy organizational culture or be committed to strong leadership, inclusion, innovation or employee engagement without some commitment to individual authenticity. It all starts there. Healthy and whole organizations are built with healthy and whole individuals, not sock puppets.

How real are you at work? How real is your organization? Is there real commitment to open, candid conversation, or are there a lot of “undiscussables?”