Buzzword of the year: Authenticity

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I went on a business trip and I took my mom. When I got there it was apparent that I was underdressed, so we went shopping. I planned on getting rid of my ratty sneakers, but my mom said I needed a suit. Somehow a civilized disagreement turned into an all-out fight with me and my mom using clothing as a metaphor for everything we hate about each other. At some point, I said under my breath, “I’m going to write about this is my column.”

My mom said, “Don’t do that! You’ll make yourself look bad! People will know you didn’t dress properly.”

But here it is. For the world to know. I dressed inappropriately. I ended up buying expensive shoes that I already had at home. And I fought with my mom in public.

Surely you’ve had a moment of failing — maybe similar to this one. Don’t be so quick to hide it from people, because the new battleground in business is authenticity and you’d better get some.

The Harvard Business Review (paid) reports this month that authenticity is the trait that uniquely defines great leaders. Generation Y values authenticity above almost everything else, according to a report from demographic research firm Yankelovich Partners. You can already see that playing itself out in advertising, where glitz is over. The power of authenticity hit me recently, when I had a speaking engagement at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Ontario, Canada. In a post-event survey, the reaction of the students was very positive; though ironically it wasn’t the content of the speech they cited so much as the authenticity.

Research about authenticity by Rob Goffee, professor at the London Business School, explains that authenticity is largely defined by what other people see in you. So you have a good amount of control over how authentic you appear.

Being genuine means you don’t do or say things you don’t believe. Everyone understands this in principle. But people who are authentic are fanatical about it. The other quality you need for authenticity is to be able to relate to a lot of types of people — otherwise you’ll have a career where you only connect to people who are like you.

The first thing, then, is to know who you are and what you believe. Then you need to have confidence that being your true self will get you where you want to go. But you don’t need to tell everyone everything about yourself every time. It would be impossible, in fact, and any attempt at that would sound insane. You need to manage your authenticity by revealing the parts of you that will best connect with your audience.

Success at work requires working well with many different types people while remaining true to yourself. You do not have to agree with everything your boss does, for example. But you have to speak about his policies in ways that remain true to your own values — which means not lying but not undermining your boss, either. People who think this task is impossible are actually people who are too lazy to be authentic.

The real work of authenticity is not just knowing yourself, but taking the time to understand where other people are coming from and to respect them for that. If you have a fur coat and you love skiing, talk to the animal rights activist about skiing and talk to the seventy-year-old heiress about fur coats. In both cases you can be authentic without putting the other person off.

A lot of people think that the business world is not compatible with authenticity. However the exact opposite is true; those who stand out as leaders have a notable authenticity. People are attracted to authenticity because the alternative is so disappointing: Cliched relationships, empty promises and conversation with no soul. What people value in business is what they value in all of life, and that is a real connection. People need to see a genuine part of you and they need to relate to it. So in many cases, a wardrobe mishap or fight with your mom is a good opening.

9 replies
  1. Emily
    Emily says:

    I just saw this post while browsing your archives. Interesting contrast with the “Likeability” post from Sept. ’06. It seems like there must be a fine line between authenticity and not controlling your neuroses, no? Not to mention “too much information…” :-)

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Emily, that is a very good point. Here is what I’m thinking, though. I think that when someone is being authentic, they are likeable. The post from Sept. 06that you refer to is sort of the list of five things that keep us from being authentic.

    For example, you had said you have insecurities talking in front of a crowd. That is not the true you — the true you is what you say when you are really comfortable.

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “The real work of authenticity is not just knowing yourself, but taking the time to understand where other people are coming from and to respect them for that.”
    I would like to add that respectful people will respect you for your authenticity when expressed in a respectful way.
    I think it’s along the same line of thought as “People need to see a genuine part of you and they need to relate to it.”
    I wasn’t aware authenticity was buzzword of the year in 2005. I guess buzzwords are like fashion trends – they come and go and come back again.

  4. matchmaker
    matchmaker says:

    This is great information. I'm partial to just using the spray can, but I have wondered if there have been times when I should have done the extra work to grease and flour to get a better result. Now I know when to make that choice. Thanks!

    Have you used a baking spray that has four in it? Trader Joe's has one that I've tried. But I only used it a couple of times and haven't compared the two methods.

  5. Adam
    Adam says:

    I think you’re right that “authenticity” is the key to success. You can see it apparent in recent advertising which try to portray real-life people talking directly to the camera, or other similar scenarios.

    Everyone prefers someone who is real.

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