The Authenticity Myth

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My intention with each of these posts is that you’re challenged to interrupt the noise and routine in your life, just for a moment, to think more deeply about what really matters in life… your relationship with yourself and with others in your professional and personal life.

If you were to trace the rise of the topic of authenticity, especially when referring to authenticity in the workplace, you quickly realise it has been in response to a continual global decline in trust.1

For most people it would seem the idea of being authentic, living an authentic life, and authentic leadership are aspirational and worthwhile … and I readily put my hand up in agreement with that.

However, in this article I want to challenge the idea that any of us, or very few of us can realistically and practically be totally authentic in every situation.

Authenticity and One’s True Self

While there isn’t one globally accepted definition of authenticity, often it will be similar to this:

Authenticity is the activity of expressing one’s true-self, making deliberate choices and taking responsibility for them. 2

This is problematic because we humans are much too complex to be just one true-self.

Life is Contextual

Life is contextual … and depending on what situation we find ourselves in, we will respond to that context in the best way we can.

Let’s take a team-building exercise as an example.

Julie has taken her team on a team-building exercise which includes an activity where they all are required to abseil down a cliff.

One of the team members, Alex, is held in high regard by Julie and his teammates, especially for his courage to try new things, his flexibility in disruptive times and his resilience when things don’t always go to plan.

However, on this day, they all discover that Alex has a fear of heights, and no matter how much they encourage and support him, Alex refuses to participate.

How does this reflect on Alex living up to his ‘true-self’? Does it have anything to do with authenticity? What impact might Alex’s choice to not participate have when he returns to work … how will his courage, flexibility and resilience be judged?

The Costs and Benefits

The reality is, authenticity is a constant appraisal of the costs and benefits, or the risks and rewards of being open and truthful about what we genuinely think and feel and want to do.

How authentic would you be if you were in a workplace setting where:

  • your job is not secure,
  • or your manager does not support or trust you to work autonomously
  • or there are intra or inter team politics being played,
  • or the espoused values of the company are not ‘lived up to’ by leaders

The authenticity myth is this:

We are kidding ourselves if we think in every situation we find ourselves in, that we will choose to be authentic … for most of us, that’s just not a reality.

We are also kidding ourselves if we expect others to always act authentically.

However, that does not mean the pursuit of authenticity isn’t worthwhile.

Another Definition

My current definition of authenticity is intentionally choosing actions that are aligned with our personal values and goals and holding ourselves responsible and accountable for the impact of those actions on ourselves and on others.

What we know from the evidence-based research is the more often we are able to choose actions that are authentic, we fulfill a range of human needs including:3

  • Meaning
  • Autonomy
  • Security
  • Self-esteem
  • Pleasure
  • Popularity/Influence
  • Relatedness
  • Competence
  • Physical thriving

While trust might be in decline globally, perhaps the pursuit of authenticity just might be what’s required.

And, despite the reality that having the courage to be authentic might not always be easy, the benefits to ourselves and to others might very well be worth taking the risk whenever we choose to do so.

Let me leave you with this quote from one of my favourite researchers on vulnerability and authenticity, Brene Brown:
“If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything.”

  1. Edelman Trust Barometer 2021:
  2. Sutton, A. (2020). Living the good life: A meta-analysis of authenticity, well-being and engagement. Science Direct. Vol 153.
  3. Sedikides, C., Lenton, A. P., Slabu, L., & Thomaes, S. (2019). Sketching the Contours of State Authenticity. Review of General Psychology. Vol. 23(1). Pp.73-88.
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