The People Make the Place Authentic

by cv harquail on October 1, 2009

When you think about “the organization” or “your organization”, do you simultaneously overlook the actual people in it?

This tension between thinking of an organization as an entity and simultaneously recognizing that it is also a collection of individuals runs through all our conversations about organizations. When managers and leaders are considering their organization’s strategy, its core competencies, and even its identity, they often forget that organizations are composed of people.

The people who compose this organizational entity are individuals. Each individual is unique, each individual is meaningful, each individual is capable of being authentic, each individual is capable of being thwarted in her efforts to make a difference by being part of the organization.

Peeking inside the organization

empty store.jpg

An odd peek into an organization getting ready to launch itself brought this point home for me. Consider what I saw of this organization, last night on my way home from a meeting. Last night was one of those early fall evenings, chilly and prematurely dark. Everywhere.

Except for one nearly empty retail space, where the lights were blazing even at this late hour.

If you pulled your car over, got and and peeked into the window, as I did,  here’s what you might see:  a space that is still blank. If you didn’t read the sign on the front, you’d have no idea what store was going to emerge here. So you might wonder –beyond the space and the merchandise that will fill the space, what will create this as “an organization”?

How will these employees ‘create’ the organization?

It will, of course, be the people who create the organization.  The employees will create the organization by enacting and putting into practice the organization’s systems. The employees will have rules, procedures, responsibilities, and priorities to follow. Their behavior will be scripted.

But already, “‘who’ the organization is” has begun to emerge, largely from the ways that these employees are alike. They have been selected for the ways that ‘who they are’ meets the organization’s criteria. They’ve been selected based on their retail experience, their gender & age, and maybe even based on their self-presentation. All these ways that the employees are alike will help to create ‘who’ the organization is.

Who will these employees be?

Even thought the employees are a lot alike, these employees aren’t all the same. They aren’t interchangeable.

They won’t be like this row of mannequins, all blank, waiting to be ‘dressed’ in the image that the organization wants to present for itself.

mannequin fronts.jpg

Even wrapped in the organization’s dress, the organization’s brand, and the organization’s proscribed behaviors, these employees aren’t the same.  Underneath, instead of smooth, white, generic forms, waiting to be made specific by the organization, they are already each individual, unique people.

The employees’ uniqueness, their personalities, their values, what’s important to them, will squeak out from behind whatever the organization has wrapped them in, because that’s how people are. We each have a combination of qualities that makes us unique. And, we each have a drive, a motivation, to display who we are, to be recognized for being who we are, and to align who we are with how we behave. We have an innate motivation to be authentic.

Will this organization be “authentic”?

From the perspective of the home office, this branch of their organization will probably look and feel authentic. It will have all the right products, displayed precisely according to the merchandising plans. Especially in its physical location, a one-of-a-kind building in a ‘real’ downtown, this organization will likely appear to be a unique boutique, and not like yet another iteration of a centrally managed, collectively branded national business.

And, if the managers recognize that the organization is not just the entity but also the collection of individual people…  If the managers allow (even better, if they encourage) their employees’ uniqueness to come out, the organization overall will become more authentic.

mannequin behinds.jpg

I could tell from my view at the window that the people who are creating this organization have the energy to make this organization come alive. You could see their excitement as they gathered up their jackets and sweaters and moved towards the front door. You could sense their enthusiasm even as the (probable) manager checked their tote bags to make sure they weren’t stealing something. These folks were excited about being part of this store.

An organization is more than its space, more than its systems.

A new organization, a new location for an expanding organization, and even an ongoing organization, is never a blank place. It is never just a location to be decorated or a network of systems to be executed.

Despite the power of systems over individuals, and despite the great lengths to which organizations go to exert that power, when it comes down to our experience of an organization, it is the people that make the place authentic.

Now, if we could just make it a little easier for each member to be more authentic within the organization, as part of the organization, we’d really get somewhere.

Photos courtesy of my hot-pink iPhone

Related posts:
Authenticity: Is it Organizational or is it Marketing?
You don’t have to ‘live the brand’ to give the brand
Authenticity: Is their an app for that?


Cara Wilson October 2, 2009 at 11:03 am

I couldn’t help but think “the manager is checking their bags to see if they stole something? What a great way to build trust…”

cv October 2, 2009 at 11:52 am

I had the same thought when I saw it… and I left it in the description b/c I think that even in spite of ‘anti-shrinkage’ procedures like these people still want to contribute from who they are.
The whole bag-checking practice is so common in retail that I doubt that a lot of retail employees even think about it as being attached to a particular organization. [At Bloomingdales’ and other stores the employees are given clear plastic pouches for their important stuff so that it’s easy to see that they’re only carrying a wallet, a phone and lipstick… ) I wonder if at some point in the heirarchy employees get to carry opaque handbags? cvh

jamie showkeir October 2, 2009 at 1:46 pm

another great post. check out our blog post from yesterday at – maybe great minds do think alike. thanks for the great work you are doing.

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