The Authenticity Paradox

On the importance of being “adaptively" authentic

Authenticity is associated with integrity and sincerity towards ours (true) selves (“just be yourself”, “be true to yourself”, “walk your talk”).

During the past few years, the number of articles mentioning “authenticity” as one of those human qualities one must have to be an effective professional and one of the most attractive quality to have overall as human being, has risen dramatically. On the other side, frustration, disillusionment, and misalignment with personal values are cited among the biggest reasons for career change. Authenticity appears as well as the hardest quality to find in people when building relationships.

Authenticity has almost become a cliché, yet not understanding it correctly, can hinder one’s self growth.

The illusion of a stable self

« We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self-according to the territory through which we travel »  – David White

This is one of my favourite sayings and life philosophy about our true colours as human beings. It represents the best all the strange and inexplicable inner ways we belong to ourselves and to the others.

While all psychologists agree that the self is a fluid phenomenon and there is no such thing as fixed personality, we still tend to view the self as a stable foundation. For D. White also, the self “moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world”, and that outer world invariably shapes our inner experience.

We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. However, from workplace dynamics to romantic relationships to our self-actualization we’re rather reacting than acting. We remain blissfully unaware of the fact that so much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, on top of a multitude of other psychological biases that cloud our interpretation of reality.

Life itself is a train of moods, seasons and “character” is fluid and responsive to context, rather than a static set of traits.

As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it:

‘I am, plus my circumstances’.

Everything is relative. We not only view others differently given the situation, but we also view ourselves differently.

Even the most private of our perceptions — our very sense of self — is shaped by where we are and who we’re with. We tend to draw the way we act based on how those around us act, to which we can also add several others factors such as our level of fatigue, our perception of who is watching us, whether we are alone or part of a group, how connected we feel to the persons around us and even how creative we are.

 “While growing up, we find parking spaces and honour our credit cards. We marry and have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old versus grow up. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the child inside is still alive and innocent. We may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do belong and this is who we really are.” Maya Angelou

The Comfort Zone

One of the biggest danger of misunderstanding the concept of “self” and what “staying true to ourselves” really means, is the comfort zone.

“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our physical and mental resources. Stating the thing broadly, the human individual thus lives far within his limits. He possesses power of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.” ―William James

At work as well as in our personal lives , we are several times confronted to new situations, new people, new roles that require from us to learn new skills, to try new ways of doing and/or looking up at things, that will require new behaviours. At the beginning, many of these will feel “unnatural” and uncomfortable, “inauthentic” instead of genuine and spontaneous, simply because they’re new and also because learning necessarily involves some form of imitation  (vs. “originality”).

In Managing-authenticity, the paradox of great leadership the authors write:

“in global business, many of us work with people who don’t share our cultural norms and have different expectations for how we should behave. It can often seem as if we have to choose between what is expected—and therefore effective—and what feels authentic”.

However, many of us value certainty, and are fearful of the unknown. We love living a life of predictability and we validate the  “reasons” that make us stay within “safe” bounds of what we know. And where this confusion between safety and predictability exists, there is usually a denial and a resistance at the beginning which can be difficult, which can be felt as “inauthentic”.  This can cause us to become frustrated, disempowered, and to second guess our self and our true capability.

“Adaptively authentic”

The truth is that being authentic is also being uncomfortable. It also means walking paths that  feel “inauthentic” at the beginning until what felt inauthentic becomes “authentic”.

And why we need to stay “true” to our “values” we also need to re-evaluate them and be , what Herminia Ibarra, author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015) calls – “adaptively authentic”.

Being “adaptively authentic” requires a playful frame of mind which means letting go of old ways of seeing the world and outdated views of ourselves. In order to evolve toward an “adaptively authentic” we need to understand change as being the only constant in life. It means remaining flexible and comfortable within the unknown and be ready to learn, progress and explore several “selves”.

In Managing authenticity: the paradox of great leadership , which recounts the experiences of authentic leaders including the BBC’s Greg Dyke, Nestlé’s Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, and Marks & Spencer’s Jean Tomlin, the authors illustrate that:

“Establishing your authenticity as a leader is a two-part challenge. You have to consistently match your words and deeds; otherwise, followers will never accept you as authentic. But it is not enough just to practice what you preach. To get people to follow you, you also have to get them to relate to you. This means presenting different faces to different audiences–a requirement that many people find hard to square with authenticity..”

Life is just so interesting and complicated and beautiful. Every day, every interaction is different. It’s important for us to realize that we’re not a finished product but rather “work in progress” — and that who we are in the here and now, may not be the same person we’ll be in the then and there. In fact, it’s this view of the self as a fixed entity that causes problems.

It’s only when we see our “true self” as always waiting to be discovered that our potential is limitless.

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