The challenge of authenticity
Executive Coach Hannah Cleaton-Roberts explores authenticity and the importance of connection.
Someone said to me the other day: “I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but I want to be authentic”. It made me wonder: why do we want to be authentic? Is it really valued in the workplace? Should we be striving for it?
What do we mean when we say that someone is authentic? For me it means that I believe that what they say is what they feel. That I get a sense of the true human being underneath. And alongside that I feel that there is some connection with this person when I talk to them, which goes beyond a transactional level. There is an innate human understanding. I feel aware of their emotions, at some level. There is a connection.
I believe that at a fundamental human level there is a very basic desire to be seen, and understood, and accepted, and valued, as OURSELVES. For who we actually are, not who we are pretending to be. And if you think about it, authenticity in others can be compelling. We are naturally drawn to genuine, authentic people, people who seem real. It doesn’t necessarily mean we like these people, but we do find it easier to trust them, because we know what we are getting.
In my many years of working as a partner in a professional services firm, building trusted client relationships swiftly was a fundamental skill. Building trust is clearly important in building effective teams as well. Sometimes we get to do these things naturally, but sometimes we are put in a very artificial situation and expected to quickly build trust and show who we are. Ironically, it tends to be at the times when we most need to build connection quickly, that our shields go up. A good example of this is a panel interview: whether it be in a promotion or a proposal pitch, here is your chance to demonstrate all your skill and knowledge with gravitas and impact in a short interview in front of potentially intimidating senior people you many never have met before, while at the same time appearing to be a normal and genuine person. No pressure.
Some people rise to this type of challenge. Some people are terrified by it. Some say they need time to build an impression, to make an impact, to deepen their relationships.
And here’s another challenge: at the same time as we are being asked to be authentic, we are asked to be versatile in our styles – to adapt to the people we are dealing with. We constrain ourselves to fit into the “system”, or the society we live in. So how do we reconcile authenticity with the need to adapt our style for other people? What does authenticity even mean in this context?
Here we come to one of the critical things I have realised about authenticity. Of course we want to be accepted as ourselves. We want to act with integrity and tell the truth. We want to be “real” we want to be “true”. But many of us have been forced to adapt our styles for many years in order to succeed. I have realised that actually not having had to adapt to fit in is probably an indicator of privilege which in itself conveys and additional layer of privilege.
The fact is that our capability and desire to reveal our true self and to balance that with the demands of our environment, employment and culture, is a very personal issue. We have to find our own balance and gauge. There is a tentative journey we must take to find how much of ourselves we can reveal, and still be accepted. It is a gamble. Showing our true selves means making ourselves vulnerable. And vulnerability takes courage. The prize, is of course being accepted for who we are, succeeding on the basis of who we are, but what if we fail? What if the team of quiet, measured, nerdy introverts isn’t ready for the noisy, bouncy Tigger which is to be unleashed into their midst? Or the room full of Tiggers doesn’t wait to hear when the single Piglet finally finds the courage to be a dissenting voice.
And what if your points of view do not fit with the system? Is the system ready to welcome a dissenting voice or are you going to be a pariah? If you google “authentic leadership” (which of course I did) it turns out it’s a thing. Complete with schools of thought and diagrams and acronyms and multi-step criteria. You also quickly find an entertaining debunking of the whole movement. It comes down to this: it’s all very well, but what if your authentic self is offensive to others? We could all make a decision that we are going to be our authentic selves now and to hell with everyone else. But perhaps your authentic views are deeply prejudiced, or perhaps your authentic view is just that the people you are dealing with are frustratingly stupid… When is it acceptable to reveal your true opinion? Clearly there need to be some checks and balances on authenticity.
Well, here’s my view, for what it’s worth. I think if you are going to be authentic, then you have to be prepared to tune into the authenticity of others too. You can’t just be “stuck on send”. You need to be prepared to receive. You have to be aware of what’s going on around you. You have to listen, listen for the true voices of your colleagues, your clients, your friends.
Because authenticity is linked to connection. Our desire to be authentic is a desire to connect with people at a truly resonant level. If we pluck the string of our own guitar, we want to hear it sound out true, and we want other people to hear that note. If you want to land a point, you need to create a receptive place for it to land. For people to be ready to receive you, ready to hear that note, they need to know that you are receiving them. To do that you need to listen to the person you are speaking to. You need to try to understand them. From that place of understanding comes the connection which enables you to open up. Authenticity without empathy, I’m afraid, may just be egotism.
Hannah Cleaton-Roberts is an Executive Coach, recent graduate of ECC’s PCRP Coach training programme, and a former financial services partner in a Big 4 accountancy firm. She is also the founder of Peckham Cloth.