Article | 7 min read

Who thought being authentic would be this hard?

By Rachel Henry

Last updated September 18, 2017

The professional world is inundated with trite sayings and fads—from “value-add” and “ideation” jargon (say, what?) to the leadership conference du jour. I, like many others, are flummoxed by the constant fluctuation of things I’m supposed to care about.

Amid the mire of all these concepts and ideas, there is one genuine trend that stands out, and stands true—authenticity.

It’s a hot topic to be sure. We demand authenticity of our politicians, our bosses, our favorite brands, and social media personalities. And of course, we ourselves But what does being authentic even mean?

The truth and nothing but the truth

In The Paradox of Authenticity in a Globalized World, Russell Cobb writes that authenticity has become synonymous with “truth.” We want the authentic because we crave the truth. Our current social and political climate, in particular, makes us hungry for something that feels real.

We want the authentic because we crave the truth.

One of the hazards of pursuing the truth with a bit too much vigor, is we become obsessed with details. How often have you felt that if you just knew a little bit more about someone, only then would you know the true story? You’d get their number so to speak. It’s why we spend hours stalking people (our exes, long lost friends, those people who have it all) on social media. If only we knew enough, we could find the secret to their happy life, their fantastic relationship. Or, we could uncover that darker side that reveals the truth of who they are.

Our quest for truth is no different in the workplace than in politics. As Jennifer Szalai writes in a New York Times Magazine piece, “In the pageant of authenticity that is the American campaign trail, candidates show us what they eat, and we tell them who they are.”

Somewhere along the line, someone realized that if the public knew what kind of sandwich bread their candidate liked, or by revealing any other seemingly trivial fact we (the hungry information gatherers) would feel satiated by the truth. Or at the very least feel we’re getting a peek at the real person behind the photographs. “…our very subjectivity has become fragmented by the performative selves we display on Twitter, Facebook, and so on,” writes Cobb. “Our virtual selves have multiplied the performances inherent in all social interactions.”

It’s funny, isn’t it? The more we crave the authentic, the more people share, and the more different personas develop and unfold.

Sharing is good…to a point

One of the age-old questions of sharing anything online or in person, is “how much is too much?” What’s the right combination of information that keeps you on the side of a down-to-earth person versus being an over-sharer who people presume grew up in a transparent house?

What’s the right combination of information that keeps you on the side of a down-to-earth person versus being an over-sharer who people presume grew up in a transparent house?

Vulnerability is a fundamental component to authenticity, writes Brené Brown in Daring Greatly. It’s a trait that politicians (and managers, CEOs, and us ordinary folk) try to portray—whether we are successful or not is another matter.

However, in the quest for connection and authenticity, we can err on the side of TMI. “Having spent a decade studying belonging, authenticity, and shame, I can say for certain we are hardwired for connection—emotionally, physically, and spiritually,” writes Brown. “I’m not suggesting we engage in a deep, meaningful relationship with the man who works at the cleaners or the woman who works at the drive-through…”

It’s not something I would suggest either. Though in moments of desperation during my time as a freelancer I would leave the house after a few days of being sequestered inside, and Whoops.

Be yourself, but be more than just yourself

“Being authentic is much more than ‘being yourself,’” says Gareth Jones in Fast Company. Jones, the co-author of Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization says, “If you want to be a leader, you have to be yourself–skillfully.”

And the skillful authenticity sentiment applies to bosses, employees, brands, companies, and consumers alike. Millennials, and Millennial women, in particular, are exposed to “over 5,000 brand messages and advertisements every day,” according to Entrepreneur. That means younger women are constantly filtering themselves and everything around them.

In the words of the great Amy Poehler, “With all the Photoshop and fake stuff, their [a young woman’s] world is so different from when I grew up. But that makes them crave authenticity—and they’re really good at sniffing it out.”

But Millennials are not the only group sensitive to the barrage of content pushed out every day. Generation Z, that cohort born between 1996 and 2011, is also a crucial market audience for brands, politicians, and anyone else who is interested in future decision makers.

In an interview with Fast Company about the up-and-coming Generation Z, Emerson Spartz, CEO of Dose said, “Authenticity and transparency are two ideals that they value highly.” Gen Z grew up seeing the Millennial generation struggle through the recession and as a result, are more sensitive to job security and where their dollars go. In short, they have no problem dismissing brands or labels they suspect are inauthentic or not living up to their purported values.

Test out new personal narratives

Karl Moore writes in the article, “Authenticity: The Way To The Millennial’s Heart,” that authenticity is important to all generations, but what it means to each cohort varies.

Millennials came of age during the growth of technology and proliferation of social media. Speaking as a Millennial myself, so much of what I believe about the world around me, and the people I know is through social media.

Moore argues that for Millennials (or Postmoderns), “In the age of social media, authenticity for Postmoderns is characterized by a consistency and continuity between their online personas and their lives in the real world.”

Leadership and upper management are also faced with the challenges of authenticity. I recently spent a few hours combing through PowerPoint decks on leadership, and the word authenticity jumped out every other slide like an overexcited child. Managers are told that to connect with their team and foster a sense of belonging; they must be authentic, keep it real, be relatable. But how is that possible to achieve while still maintaining your sense of place within an organization?

The Authenticity Paradox,” in the Harvard Business Review, acknowledges the precarious place leaders find themselves in with regards to being authentic or “leading authentically.” A general manager interviewed by Herminia Ibarra cautioned, that being authentic does not mean being transparent. Employees want to feel they can trust their managers but there is a line. Sharing what you did over the weekend is cool. Sharing that you got wasted and locked yourself out of your apartment is not. (But really, when is it?)

Employees want to feel they can trust their managers but there is a line. Sharing what you did over the weekend is cool. Sharing that you got wasted and locked yourself out of your apartment is not.

Instead, it’s helpful to consider a more flexible attitude toward being true to oneself,

“When we adopt a playful attitude, we’re more open to possibilities,” says Ibarra. “It’s OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake; it’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for the new challenges and circumstances we face.”

To be sure, authenticity is important; it separates the real from the bull. However, it’s worth recognizing in the quest to uncover our true selves, and when demanding it from others, that there are some inconsistencies and some learnings along the way.