Aspects of Authenticity

Authenticity is a difficult subject. Integrating who we are, what we know and how we work can seem impossible at times. But there is a way to work with it.
By Judith Haupt

Most people define authenticity in terms of realness and honesty. And they’re not wrong.

Authenticity is a form of truth and an expression of your core being that we should all aspire to for reasons that we’ll explore below. But as a coach and professional facilitator, I’ve discovered that the most challenging part of being authentic is not the courage to live and work in line with your true self. It’s the courage to discover what that true self is in the first place.

You might think that ‘finding yourself’ is an endeavour more suited for a psychologist’s chair than a professional coaching session or organisational workshop but you’d be surprised. In many respects authenticity is the most important business objective of them all – because in today’s business environment, human connections driven by influence and collaboration are one of the most fundamental drivers of the economy.

At CONTRACT, we work with teams and individuals to improve how they relate to themselves and one another; and align those relationships with clear business goals, effective strategies, and shared values. In many ways authenticity is the cornerstone of any personal growth, and personal growth is the foundation upon which we build professional development.

Patterns of in-authenticity

Over the course of my career, I’ve come to recognise certain patterns when it comes to people struggling with authenticity. One common theme is that people find themselves at a personal or professional crossroads because they have been put on the wrong path by cultural or societal pressures – often beginning at home from an early age.

Many successful people got to where they are because they were given recognition for achieving, conscientiousness, or other specific behaviours. Our children aren’t really taught to self-examine or ask difficult questions about themselves, and as they grow up they simply replace these educational or parental targets with business ones.

Another common pattern is that in order to minimise stress and fear in our lives, we develop coping mechanisms as defences – and they often work so well for us, we even forget that we’re doing something that is not really ‘us’! These mechanisms are practical, they move us forward and we do not even notice that what we’re doing or saying is not really what we believe in, or what we feel is right.

Another overarching obstacle to authenticity is company culture. Many organisations aren’t open to people speaking up and showing who they really are at work. Many roles leave little room for personal fulfilment and hold people to specific goals, dispassionate KPAs, which is making it difficult for people to show up ‘in their own way’. Companies that are flatter in terms of structure and encourage authenticity find themselves more resilient and agile in the face of constant disruption.

There are even situations that require us to subsume our personal instincts and opinions in the face of company-wide directives and decisions. Middle management, for example, is required to execute plans that are taken at a higher level, plans that sometimes are not even unanimous at the highest decision making level. An exco is often all required to stand behind a decision, no matter what their personal views are in it. It must be presented as an organisational imperative – and there is a lot of fear surrounding being a dissenting voice.

The good news is that there is a more sophisticated and nuanced way to think about authenticity that not only understands but actually accommodates the various roles we find ourselves playing throughout our lives and careers.

When we coach Executives, we use tools to understand the deep motivation, fears and core that drives your day to day actions. The aim is to get people to gain inner freedom and not be driven by unconscious behaviour.

Integration and integrity

In 2007, the founder of the Systemic Institute for Consulting in Wiesloch, Bernd Schmid delivered a keynote speech to a conference in San Francisco that revolutionised the way that people in the field of personal development understood authenticity in the workplace.

Schmid proposed that our personality encompasses three different “worlds”: the private, the professional and the organisational. The private world consists of our personal selves, how we engage in our family, with hobbies and friends. The professional world is our technical expertise, what we are trained for, our skills. And our organisational world comprises the role and function we perform as part of our company or broader professional network.

These worlds are distinct but can at times both overlap and contradict one another. A new mother’s private and professional worlds might collide if she wants to do an MBA. An IT specialist might make a decision differently as a manager than as a specialist, or a board member might have instinctual reservations about a merger that he may not voice to the media.

According to Schmid, we should seek to maintain certain levels of integration and integrity in all three of our ‘worlds’. By integration, he means that we need to find ways to connect the roles with each other to have them become a coherent whole.

At the same time, integrity means putting enough of your true, authentic self into each of these worlds to allow a healthy amount of overlap between them. While few people are exactly the same person at work as they are at home, there should also not be so much disparity between these that one puts a strain on the other. Effectiveness should not require affectation.

Another useful angle on authenticity and personality is the Integrative Enneagram Perspective. It differentiates between a person’s Essence, Soul or ‘Higher Self’, and a person’s Ego or Personality – which is the practical, self-conscious part of a person. Our Essence is our ‘core’, who we are in the centre, whereas the Personality are the habits and behaviours we have developed as coping mechanisms in our world.

Again, the aim here is Integration: It is not about the one or the other, but about finding a way to accept and integrate both parts of us, our core and the ways we have started adapting to our environment. The path to authenticity is a journey ‘back to ourselves’. It is about reducing behaviour that is defensive or a coping mechanism; and creating more of our essence.

So how to stay ‘true’ to oneself and fulfil one’s role at the same time?
Sometimes there are more questions than answers about authenticity!

The point here is that people are complex. The various roles and responsibilities we adopt and execute in our lives do not happen in a vacuum, but are a response

to varying contexts. And those contexts can change over time. Therefore, who we are – our authenticity – is neither static nor absolute. And perhaps the secret to real authenticity is being aware of its grey areas, its contradictions, its frustrations and its limitations.

Achieving authenticity may be difficult, but seeing a leader embark on this process is genuinely inspiring for those around them, and in that respect it is more about the journey than the destination.

 The importance of authenticity

So why is this ephemeral, elusive and difficult quality so important to us in all aspects of our lives?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, he demonstrates that people are a lot quicker to judge a person or situation than we realise, and that most decisions are made using an instinctual ‘gut reaction’ rather than the carefully considered choices and researched options we like to think we exercise so much of the time.

Authenticity is important because we want to deal with people who stand by their actions and principles. We believe in people who are in touch with and believe in themselves. We are subconsciously drawn to the power of straightforwardness, and the elegance of simplicity.

And for the person who gets back in touch with their true self and has begun integrating their essence with their day-to-day reality – this essence provides direction in terms of decisions. It provides alignment of the inner and outer world. It provides freedom. And that freedom  just feels so ‘right’, and so good.

At the end of the day, accompanying people on their journey to get in touch with who they really are, how they can live their truth so it also fits their role, as well as their environment is the most challenging and rewarding part of my job.