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20 May

The authenticity trap

By David D’Souza, Head of London and Branch Development, CIPD.

You can’t visit LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter without seeing repeated shares of appealing motivational words entreating you not be anything other than your authentic self. It would be great to live in an age of subtle reflection rather than one sentence self-help guides.

Left to my own devices, I would spend every working day in jeans and my (near trademark) Converse and I’d probably tidy up my beard once a week when the bits around my mouth became tickly. I would pick my nose whenever it felt a bit blocked. Whenever anything went wrong I’d throw something at the wall, swear and go for a walk; or maybe, depending on my mood, I’d just laugh out loud. I’d contact the people sharing those one line sentiments on LinkedIn and let them know what I thought. That’s my authentic self. It’s where there is no external pressure and I make my own choices. It’s reasonably free of constraint.

Some days you will find me in a suit and tie, normally when I’m going to speak to someone on behalf of my organisation. I’ll be aware that I’ll have more influence, for whatever reason, for meeting their expectations of what someone doing my role should look like. That’s my authentic self too. Caring more about making a difference than how I look. It’s an embodiment of choice.

The idea that you should bring all of yourself to work oversimplifies the complexity of the human state. I have multiple identities and ways of being and they are all part of me. As Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself
‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.’

I’m very at peace with being contradictory and so should you be. You will be different when you are with family to when you are with strangers. You will be different with people you have worked with for years to those you have just started working with. This is real, acceptable and human. I’m a different person when I’ve had a few drinks with friends to when I’m delivering a presentation to a board.

Ali Germain came up with a lovely way of describing the problem that she calls ‘the Mystery of the Revolving Door’. I have since hijacked the idea and I talk about The Reverse Superman so much that people don’t realise it was borrowed (not stolen, I have gracious permission). It goes something like this…

You know that scene in the original Superman movie where Clark Kent enters the revolving door in his crumpled suit and spins around at speed before popping out as Superman on the other side? The opposite happens in organisations every day, and that is the challenge to address. People who if you met them socially would be smart, capable, helpful; they simply default to becoming corporate drones in the office. The bright spark you hired last year? Neither bright nor sparky in your last project meeting. That’s a problem.

We are surrounded by organisations that induce a default setting where people are less than they can be. That is a loss for both organisations and individuals. That is a societal ill.
I’d argue that my authentic self is fluid and has many faces, but I know when I’m compromising my values or choosing not to bring my effort and passion to a task or problem. That’s the challenge for organisations and individuals – to create and sustain environments where people can choose to bring the fullest and most effective version of themselves to contribute to the organisation. So that a richer measure of organisational capability isn’t just headcount, but also organisational will or commitment.

So when your leadership team has just sent out a note that looks like a tumble of jargony words seemingly designed to make them look smart, it’s unfair to say they aren’t being authentic. They are playing the most authentic version of what they think a leadership team should look like that they can muster. They feel communicating like that is expected and they want to meet expectations. It would just be better for everyone if they were concentrating on being the best version of humans leading other humans that they could. That should be the focus.

The idea of laissez-faire workplaces where people are exactly as they want to be as individuals risks underplaying the value of compromise and respect. Stop worrying about authenticity. Focus on unleashing a bit of humanity and compassion and see where that gets you.

One thought on “The authenticity trap

  1. Profile photo of markbeatson

    It’s the people who can ONLY “bring their real self to work” I’m worried about, those incapable or unwilling of understanding their impact on others and unwilling to do anything about it because “It’s the real me”. Gloria Gaynor’s got a lot to answer. All social relationships involve conscious management, even an element of promotion and acting. Peter Yorke rips the concept to shreds in this well-priced little book.
    https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/authenticity-is-a-con

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