The paradox of authenticity: navigating the tension between Culture and Service
In the modern business world, brands frequently champion the mantra of "bring your true self to work" as a means to foster an open and inclusive culture. However, this ideal often collides with the practical realities of customer service, where employees face pressures to conform to specific behavioural standards and procedures. At People Made, we recognise the profound tensions and paradoxes that arise from this dynamic, and we believe that leaning into these contradictions is crucial for creating a genuinely empathetic service experience.
So, how do these tensions show up? Here are six ways…
  1. The authenticity paradox: the invitation to be authentic in the workplace can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it promises a liberating environment where employees can express their individuality. Conversely, it can lead to frustration when the culture does not genuinely support this authenticity. Employees might feel pressured to present a sanitised version of themselves that aligns with the brand's idealised image rather than their true personalities.
  2. Cultural conformity vs. individual expression: brands often establish a set of cultural norms and values intended to unify and guide employee behaviour. However, these norms can sometimes stifle individuality and create a homogenised work environment. For instance, a company might value creativity and innovation yet simultaneously impose rigid customer service scripts that leave little room for personal expression. This contradiction can lead to a disconnect where employees are unable to fully "bring their true selves" to customer interactions, thereby diminishing the authenticity of those interactions.
  3. Empathy and “emotional labour”: empathy is hailed as a cornerstone of excellent customer service, yet it also presents a significant emotional burden. Employees are expected to empathise with customers, often requiring them to engage in what’s called “emotional labour”: that is, managing and sometimes suppressing their true feelings to adhere to company expectations. This can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout, particularly if the company culture does not provide adequate support for managing these demands.
  4. The illusion of an open culture: promoting an open culture is the goal but can be illusory if not genuinely practised. Employees may be told they can be themselves, but if they feel that expressing their true selves could lead to negative consequences, such as being perceived as unprofessional or not fitting in with the team, then they are unlikely to do so. This creates a superficial veneer of openness that can exacerbate feelings of inauthenticity and disconnection.
  5. Balancing standardisation and personalisation: service-led experiences often necessitates a level of standardisation to ensure consistency and efficiency. However, overly rigid standards can clash with the goal of personalised service, where each customer interaction should feel unique and tailored to their needs. Employees caught in this tension may struggle to balance following service protocols with delivering genuinely personalised experiences, leading to frustration and inferior service.
  6. The role of leadership in bridging the gap: leaders play a critical role in navigating these paradoxes. They must model authenticity and empathy, creating a safe environment where employees feel valued for their true selves. This involves recognising and addressing the inherent contradictions in the company culture and working towards a more cohesive and supportive environment. However, this is easier said than done, as leaders themselves are often subject to the same pressures and expectations that they seek to mitigate for their teams.
Why leaning into and embracing the paradox matters
At People Made, we believe that acknowledging and embracing these paradoxes is essential for fostering a truly empathetic and authentic customer service experience. It requires a delicate balance between promoting individuality and maintaining brand coherence, supporting emotional well-being while demanding emotional labour, and encouraging personal expression within the bounds of professional service standards. That’s why defining Service Experience and Service Culture is key. By confronting these tensions head-on, companies can move towards a more genuine and effective service culture that benefits both employees and customers.
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Written by Ben Shaw, Head of Strategy