Let’s put existentialism to work

By | April 21, 2016

In high school in the sixties we worshipped at the altar of two writerly gods, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They made philosophy cool and relevant because they talked about things like honesty, moral responsibility and authenticity.

By authenticity they meant, in part, living your life according to the moral values you believe in. For example, you can’t just say you believe in treating people honestly and fairly; you have to actually carry this out in your day-to-day life, as best you can, knowing that your behaviour will never be perfectly aligned with your moral beliefs, but that at least you’re making an effort.

Today we call this “walking the talk”. We expect managers to do more than deliver speeches to us; they have to be models for the values that come out of their mouths.

How can employees be more authentic? I think there are at least ways, and both relate to existentialism.

Employees have to walk the talk too. If we believe an organization’s values align with our values, and vice versa, then we have an obligation to put those values into play. We can talk about them, sure, and sometimes criticize them for being less than perfect, but ultimately we have to act on them.

The other aspect of authenticity is being who you are. Camus and Sartre believed we’re born into a world without meaning and then create our own meaning and purpose. In the process of doing this, we define ourselves as authentic human beings. It’s then a travesty to cover this authentic self with a false, socially acceptable front or persona.

I knew a woman once, when I was a software trainer in Vancouver, back in the 1990s. We taught at the same training centre. She seemed to be unhappy person, always critical of the people around her and her family and friends. But then I sat in on one of her classes and saw a completely different person: she was warm and positive, had a wonderful sense of humour and vitality.

I wondered afterwards: how could she be two completely different people?

If we’re authentic in the workplace, then surely we can be ourselves and express ourselves. We don’t have to construct something false in order to do our jobs, be liked and respected, get a promotion, and achieve our career goals whatever they might be.

In being ourselves, in being authentic, we can express our moral values. That’s means disagreeing with the group is necessary, calling out bad or dishonest behaviour, and refusing to do anything we consider unethical.

In a post a few weeks back I mentioned a Google study of groups that concluded, among other things, that one of the defining characteristics of top-performing groups was a sense of freedom, by members of the group, to express their ideas and be themselves. That sounds like a reference to authenticity to me.

You don’t have to read Sartre and Camus to grasp the key ideas of existentialism (Sartre in particular is very heavy going). Be yourself, be authentic, act on your beliefs. In fact, these are not uncommon ideas in circulation today in the business world. Without knowing it, we have all become existentialists.


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