Unpacking Authenticity

Unpacking Authenticity

When my younger son was about 18 months old, I recall how amused he would get by our reactions. I recall a time when we had some guests over at our house and happened to be doing a diaper change. After I had cleaned up all the mess from this little guy’s haul for the day from all that good food, I folded the diaper, turned around and sent it down one of those ‘diaper genies’ we had in the room. In those few moments, the little guy had bolted out of the room diaper-less and was headed to an audience in the living room. While his older brother laughed at this situation (like he always did), thankfully, my reflexes (well learned from the older brother’s toddler years) kicked in and was able to quickly grab him off his feet, back into my arms with the fresh diaper going on him in a matter of seconds. I cannot think of a truer form of authenticity than the first few years of our lives. That period in our lives when we are well unaware of what consequences mean and live our lives with no filter.

What is authenticity?

According to Psychology Today, they describe individuals who are authentic as “..those who strive to align their actions with their core values and beliefs with the hope of discovering, and then acting in sync with their true selves.”

From a point of departure in management studies, Lehman et al 2019 define authenticity as that which is `real’ or `genuine’ or `true’ while highlighting that there is widespread surface agreement on meaning by scholars and much less agreement below the surface as the different approaches present different meanings to the term. In their article, they also reveal three fundamental distinct perspectives of authenticity as “(1) consistency between an entity’s internal values and its external expressions, (2) conformity of an entity to the norms of its social category, and (3) connection between an entity and a person, place, or time as claimed.”

In their article, The Essence of Authenticity, Frontiers in Psychology build on Lehman et al’s 3-C view research where they introduce the fourth concept of “continuity” and define authenticity as “..the process of being in a congruous relationship with self, others and relevant social norms.” The continuity relationship captures the ever-changing relationship between an individual or entity and their environment.

As showcased above, authenticity has as many meanings as researchers, scholars, psychologists and may I add people on this planet. It’s by no measure something that can be easily defined. Authenticity is complex where I have found it much easier unpacking the topic than defining it. To address this challenge, through my work and research, I developed a framework that provides insights into the Authenticity Paradox.

The Authenticity Paradox Explained

I developed this framework before I ever came across the above definitions. I was struck by how enriching those concepts were to this framework. Given the vast definitions out there, I don’t mean to add any more level of complexity to the definitions so I will try and break down the paradox while connecting and building upon some of the definitions I provided.

The Authenticity Paradox considers authenticity as a non-static state which speaks to the Frontiers in Psychology research on authenticity as a continuum. Individuals or entities are in an ever-changing relationship between authenticity and conformity for various reasons in their environment. When I think of authenticity in its truest form, I am taken back to the reality of living without awareness to any consequences no different than my son’s behaviour when he was about 18 months old.

When you consider how behaviours change as kids get older and become aware of their environments, structures are introduced to them and in effect, they are continuously moved towards some type of conformity. Before conforming to any behaviour, kids are generally introduced to the differences between great choices vs poor choices and continuously encouraged to make better or great choices in what the paradox largely captures as the adaptability state. During this state, kids will generally willingly adapt to behaviours for both their own and others good. For conformity, there are lines generally drawn in the sand that kids will not be allowed to cross. During this state, the requirement is that the rules must be followed or else, there will be consequences of which are largely understood by the child and very far off their 18-month-old self. This paradox continues on for the rest of our lives where we all continue to dance in between the continuum.

As adults, authenticity in its truest form exists when we are alone. Think of the thoughts that may cross your mind that you are certain will be taken to your grave, how you behave when you are alone etc. This is not to suggest one cannot be authentic around others but certainly very difficult to be in its truest form around others hence the dancing along the paradox continuum. With all this in mind, authenticity is contrived as I don’t know how anyone can comfortably say that they do not try and shape how they show up in their environment. It could be a simple choice as what you choose to wear, what you buy, where you shop, how you choose to look etc.

Finally, the paradox also highlights the impact of our state of authenticity. We are most empowered when we are in control of our choices and least empowered when we have to conform to choices made by others. Keyword here is choice. The dominant culture in any society has a pervasive influence on authenticity. Unfortunately, due to systemic inequities, historically marginalized people have to do a lot more dancing along this continuum and more so, spend most of their time at the far end of conformity. The reprieve they may be afforded is when they are alone, but how effective is one in any society when alone (marginalized)? Those who are largely privileged by society spend most of their time within the authentic side of the continuum at the expense of those marginalized as society continues to reinforce their values as the gold standard. With the authentic side being where most of the magic happens for most individuals including creativity, innovation, productivity etc, it becomes a desired and coveted side that is out of reach for most marginalized folkx. So how does this appear within the workplace? Let’s explore.

Factors affecting authenticity in the workplace

Lack of representation or diversity: People’s experiences inform our understanding of human interactions. A lack of representation of these experiences mean we have very little understanding of those experiences. The version of me that shows up in the workplace is largely dictated by my experiences in society and the workplace. If my experiences are not well represented in the workspace, then it means those experiences remain well misunderstood within that space. My experience is reduced to a limited or biased version of me that only you understand or exposed to such as your local news channel, CNN, nightly news etc. As such, I am forced to conform to a version of me that is only well understood by that space and that could come in many forms. It could be me tagging along to the large pub night event where I know most of the team will get silly drunk, which is something I do not particularly enjoy, or going along with the cold-cut sandwiches as I dare not suggest we go with some cornbread, barbeque spare ribs, jerk chicken, oxtail, curry goat, some rice and peas, quesadillas etc. You get where I’m going with this. The bottom line and fact remains that these social interactions and bonding is where all the magic happens as it pertains to career advancement and unfortunately, those who are underrepresented will either choose to conform at the expense of their authenticity or decline the invitation at the expense of growth opportunities. I discuss representation in detail in a previous article, Why Representation Matters, where I provide practical solutions to a lack of representation.

Homogeneity: The corporate textbook has been largely outdated for many decades where organizations pushed for a “culture fit” in their recruitment strategies which largely created homogeneity. Spaces that are homogeneous have similar identities and that could be described in many ways by looking at various intersecting backgrounds such as age, race, size, ability, gender, education, etc, simply anything that is outside the scope of the homogeneity created where one identity is allowed to proliferate at the expense of others. Unfortunately, this can be very unwelcoming for anyone looking from the outside through any one of those lenses where the homogeneity created largely screams, `Conform!’. I unpack intersectionality at length in a previous article, Dissecting Intersectionality, where I provide an extensive list of considerations on this topic.

Biases: Homogeneity and a lack of representation present a breeding ground of ignorance and biases. We can talk all about how biases are an inherent part of human cognition, however if we are aware of this inherence and continue to perpetuate the very same grounds that breed biases (with no change to representation), then we have no business discussing how unconscious biases can be. It’s like discussing how wet we’re going to get every time we jump into a pool. This is not a matter of if, but when. In this day and age, a workspace that lacks representation or is homogeneous is a ticking time bomb. I unpack biases at length in my article, Bias-Aware Leadership. If my experiences are reduced to your biased understanding of those experiences, then I cannot be my true self. I’m reminded of a Leader I worked with who once said to me “..Kevin, let’s be real, you are not the regular Black guy” and was convinced he was sharing a compliment. These views can have the effect of recoiling to a place of silence just to keep some sanity or at times an exit, clearing room for further breeding of biases with no lessons learned.

Microaggressions: Biases form stereotypes which lead to microaggressions. Microaggressions can feel like death by a thousand cuts. These acts, whether intentional or unintentional are the exact opposite of how we can encourage anyone to be authentic. I’m reminded of this highly experienced Black Professional I worked with at a Client organization that shared her story with me. She was overlooked for a more senior role that she applied for several times while she was working for her previous employer. Besides being overlooked three times with less experienced candidates from other departments, they eventually ended up promoting one of her direct reports that she had actually trained. This was all done after she had consistently received performance reviews that had labelled her as combative to a point where the HR department had turned around and were weaponizing the situation by advising her that her relentless discrimination claim had constituted harassment. She eventually decided to keep her peace and resigned after getting an offer from this Client organization. There is simply not a single microaggression, however innocent it may appear that encourages anyone on the receiving end to be more of who they are. I unpack microaggressions in detail in my article, Unpacking Microaggressions.

Exclusive Spaces: Exclusive spaces are simply a summary of what is created by all the above factors and more. If your workplace is not inclusive, it simply remains exclusive, a space that is devoid of consideration for inclusion whether that is intentional or not as the impact on the individual is more or less the same. I discuss the characteristics of an exclusive space in detail in a previous article, Transforming Exclusive Spaces. When I walk into a board room full of decision makers where the make-up of those decision makers across the entire organization is more or less the same, it communicates certain signals to me as someone who identifies as marginalized and that includes conformity. Having been the only Black guy in the room in many board rooms in my career, despite how the others felt in the room, I never once considered it a privilege. It simply communicated to me how misplaced the organization’s priorities were in a nutshell and disappointment in not recognizing how that picture in itself was a barrier to my authenticity. All we have to do to recognize the impact is reverse the roles and ask yourself, how confident are you that you would be able to bring your best authentic self in a room where your experiences are not represented let alone understood?

Minimization: Minimization is the resulting impact where appropriate responses are given that provide more silencing than resolve. Think of the powerful response from your organization on the Islamophobic message discovered floating around as the meme of the month which provides very little resolve to those affected. I explore this phenomenon in my article, Whistles of Minimization where I discuss the impact on the victims and how we can move forward. P.R is simply just that and does little to resolve the roots of our problems. In our workspaces, we are keen to encourage everyone to report unwanted behaviour. Unfortunately, we tend to spend more time, money and effort crafting or tailoring a response as opposed to remedying the root cause. No one likes to be duped and we all generally expect that our leaders and organizations will take steps to ensure that none of us fall victim to someone’s bad behaviour. The organization loses its authenticity and integrity when words remain just that, words. We should all save ourselves the performing act and understand that minimization has the effect of conformity over authenticity.

Microtokenism: I coined this term of which I describe as the phenomenon of performative or exploitive acts whether intentional or unintentional having the appearance of responding to or addressing systemic change devoid of any consideration to actually addressing real systemic change or having the impact of minimizing the work that lies ahead which intersects at the two concepts of tokenism & microaggression. I unpack this phenomenon in my article, Unmasking Microtokenisms. Minimization as seen above does more harm than good by communicating a bias to those marginalized and as such is a microaggression. Keyword here is impact and not necessarily intent. Consider a government that boldly states that they do not believe systemic discrimination exists while pointing to their powerful token cabinet member who happens to be from a marginalized community of whom they choose to weaponize on their critics as living proof and appointing them as their fallacy advocate.

We are our best versions in environments that support bringing out our best authentic selves. Anything short of our best authentic selves means we are trading off the empowerment that infuses creativity, respect, sense of belonging, purpose, fulfillment, innovation etc, all those things we all desire and that allow all of us to thrive. What are you doing to support your colleagues today in bringing their best authentic self to work? What is your organization doing to remove its barriers to authenticity? Where can you do better to create a thriving environment for all at your workplace?

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