The War On Authenticity

(Editor’s note: The following article discusses the recent #TChat event: “Authenticity Is An Inside Job That Starts With Self” –  Click here to view the recap of this event. 

Did you miss out on last night’s #TChat event? Stay tuned for the #TChat Recap!)

A recent TalentCulture “TChat” on Twitter addressed the topic of “Authenticity.” “Authenticity” has become a very popular buzzword of late, much so that the New York Times did an article on the subject.

When we talk about authenticity in the workplace, well, while is a blog about workplace issues, let’s remember, workplaces do not exist in a cultural vacuum; they are inhabited by people who carry their pasts and personal lives into the workplace. Since broader cultural contexts impact “authenticity” in a major way, let’s add them to the discussion.

To start, let’s take a moment to reflect on historical context. We are only now just beginning to come out of the industrial era, where, since the dawn of the assembly line, individualism– one definition of “authenticity”– has always been seen as a hindrance to the smooth working of the corporate machinery. For the past century, in the industrial world, there has been a virtual war on authenticity, for the purpose of attaining the efficiencies of uniformity.

Along with the influence of industrial culture, your true unique “authentic” self is often suppressed and shamed by the popular culture.

Just two examples:

For both genders, we are constantly being presented with “ideals” of beauty. It’s all done for marketing purposes of course, but most images we see of male and female beauty are not at all authentic; they are unattainable photoshopped perfection. It is natural to want to conceal our shamefully imperfect selves in response.

Another quick example, when young men see a lite beer commercial, they are informed in no uncertain terms that if they are openly honest and “authentic” in their desire to, say, just drink seltzer water, they will not be seen as being masculine, or at all appealing to the opposite sex. That’s a lot of pressure. All too often, authenticity is abandoned in exchange for an illusion of quick social acceptance. We are constantly being asked to choose between authenticity and our primal need to belong.

Those are just two of literally thousands of possible examples of how we are pressured by school, standardized tests, family, and peer groups to conform to a norm. This is the war on “authenticity.”

So, how to survive it?

You can build an external “brand,” but, like a bad toupee, easy to spot.

Then there is the escapist route, of being a rogue independent, but for most this is not a reasonable strategy. “Authentic” human beings are far too fragile and socially needy to keep that up for very long.

What is far better is to accept one element of authenticity, and that is one’s vulnerability. In a unauthentic world where such an admission is often labeled as either “stupid” or “sissy stuff,” it is essential to have a support group that has grown into the greater consciousness of “authenticity” themselves, and thus are in a position to support you and to accept you as you are. This can be a best friend, a mentor, a coach, or all of these wrapped together into a personal board of directors. (Full disclosure, I am a coach myself, and I focus on authenticity, or at least my own definition of it, in my books and talks. Part of developing my own “authenticity” has been discovering how essential this kind of support is, how essential it is to accept my shortcomings, and how exhausting it was when I tried to do it all on my own.  In fact, the isolationist cowboy fantasy of going it alone turned out to be one more element of suppression– it had the ultimate effect of preventing real personal growth.)

There are also many people who help others to cultivate authenticity on a more spiritual level. There are holistic workplace health consultants who combine yoga, nutrition, and general support; other therapies, such as the Alexander Technique, not only deal with physical issues, they also lead you to “meeting and being your true self.”

This is collectively known in the holistic healing community as “energy work,” and since we are all made of energy, this is key to achieving authenticity. The reason someone has suppressed their true energy it is usually due to a past trauma, not a calm conscious decision.

In seeking change in your own workplace…

you can also make an argument for authenticity on very pragmatic grounds. For those who like to count beans, celebrating and (dare we say it) exploiting individual unique presence is actually far more efficient. It may not seem so at first, but that only applies (again) in narrow industrial contexts, where data is only measured in the short term, such as quarterly profits or recent graduation rates. If you see it in the long term, and factor in the cost of items such as turnover, burnout, and chronic health problems, cultivating “authenticity” is a much better system all around. It is also essential in the connection-driven online business world. And at some point it becomes a moral/ethical question as well, in terms of how workplace culture feeds back into the greater picture of life and society as a whole.

The fear that comes with being manager, e.g., having greater responsibility, tends to spawn intolerance for difference and dissidents. Human beings who are new to management need support and training in how to handle this challenge.  Changing this default loyalty to our industrial past requires proactive intervention. Absent that, most folks who have been through the standard industrial training mill will almost always default to what they know, of seeking a sense of greater control through obedience and conformity. “Authenticity,” to them, is a threat to their sense of control. This attitude, where it exists, needs to be, well, not changed, but healed.

As someone trying to share the marvelous culture of mandatory “authenticity” that was de rigueur in the performing arts world, this new emphasis on authenticity in the corporate workplace is most encouraging. It does, however, require an entirely different management mind set.  Modern  science shows us that every person is unique, genetically and otherwise. In the light of this relatively new information, the traditions of industrial management are obviously incorrect, not to mention terribly inefficient.  Retooling the culture will be a big job. Let’s get at it.  And if someone tells you that you need to be “more authentic,” take a moment to remember that you are a refugee in the war on your own authenticity.

(About the Author: Justin Locke spent 18 years playing bass in the Boston Pops, and his musical plays are performed all over the world. As an author, speaker, and coach, he shares a pragmatic artistic approach to authenticity, “people skills,” and managing people, especially your “top performers.” For more, visit his website at and follow at @justinlocke.)

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