“How do you respond to critics who have pointed out all of the problems of authenticity in organizations?”

We were at the end of a workshop on finding meaning and purpose at work—and the question, from a senior human resources executive, stunned me a bit.

“Can you tell me more?” I asked. “There are problems with authenticity?”

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“Oh, yes,” she replied, “It’s a big problem. Loads of hostility and aggression. No company would buy into a meaningful work program if it was going to give rise to authenticity.”

In the conversation that ensued, I discovered that this executive was truly concerned that authenticity was being poisoned. Behind her question, you can almost see the workplace goblins licking their chops, feeling armed with another way to abuse others and slink away with a parting excuse: “Don’t be so sensitive. We’re supposed to be authentic now.”

Sadly, I’ve come to realize, she had a point. Somehow, the crucial and revered humanistic, existentialist, and perhaps even Aristotelian idea of authenticity has been transformed into an excuse for jerks to be jerks, and not even have to feel bad about it. So, how can we reclaim authenticity from the jerks?

What happened to authenticity?

A lot of us are horrified to see the upside-down-world version of authenticity haunting boardrooms, cubicle farms, and Slack channels. Like many other laudable forms of human excellence and happiness, authenticity is under threat from the forces of hyper-competitive, winner-takes-all organizational cultures. Too often, American business culture twists good ideas for well-being into license for cynicism and bad behavior:

  • Job satisfaction? “Sounds trivial, does it at least increase performance and loyalty?”
  • Engagement? “Too romantic…wait, you said they’ll work tirelessly in total concentration?”
  • Mindfulness? “Weird! Go back to your sprouts, hippie!” Err, I mean mind hacking? “Awesome, sign me up!”
  • Authenticity? “Ooooo, let the brutal insults and frank putdowns begin!”

So, apparently, we need to take back authenticity from the people who think it gives them the right to be giant a$%holes. It may be true that jerks will be jerks, but they shouldn’t be able to get away with calling themselves virtue heroes while they do it.

Reclaiming authenticity is a crucial task because not only is it central to meaningful work, it also is a key piece of the meaningful life. How can life be meaningful if in order to live it, we must fabricate a persona to be in the world? That is, if we aren’t living our lives, but instead are living a life defined only by our speculation on other people’s expectations, rules, and needs, then we will struggle to find lasting meaning and purpose.

What is authenticity?

So, what is authenticity, really? In its most simple form, authenticity is about accessing and enacting our true selves, not playacting roles imposed by other people.

Based on this definition, if your true self is nothing more than an aggressive, aggrieved pile of mouldering banana peels and beef jerky wrappers, you might think authenticity gives you permission to slime everyone around you with your reeking effluvium. It does not.

This is where we hit a crucial misunderstanding. Yes, authenticity is about expressing your true self, including your feelings and opinions, but that is not all there is to the story. Authenticity does not sit alone in isolation. It is not a blanket encouragement for people to uncork the inner urges that society, politeness, or human decency suggest we keep bottled up. Authenticity is accessing and enacting our true self, but it also is the way we test, refine, and improve our true self as members of cooperative groups.

That might feel like a lot, so let’s consider authenticity in three distinct steps.

How to be authentic in three steps

1. Follow the advice of the Oracle of Delphi: Know yourself. There is no way to know ourselves without being honest and accepting of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly inside of us.

Sure, I wish that in being honest with myself I could discover only that I am an incredibly humble, kind, generous, and patient person. Uh-uh. Sometimes that’s true, and other times I am self-centered, miserly, and quickly aggravated.

If I overlook the Bad parts of myself, I increase the chances that I will hurt others, get in my own way, and ultimately sabotage my path toward a meaningful life. On the flip side, for many, the harder task is acknowledging the Good inside, as that brave step might counter societal or familial messages. If the Good stuff is there—and I know it is—you have to accept that, too. The Good can be strengths, talents, values, knowledge, skills, wisdom, an ability to encourage others, perfect pitch, who knows?

Some stuff is not really Good or Bad, but maybe just Ugly. It’s not morally terrible, and it’s not hurting others, but perhaps how I express it is awkward, off-putting, or otherwise distracting from the Good in myself. It is important to recognize and accept the Ugly, too. That’s a part of us, every one of us.

2. You be you—but remember that “you” is an imperfect work in progress. Express the Good parts of yourself without fear, look for ways to rehabilitate the Bad parts of yourself, and try to refine the Ugly.

Here is where the sociopaths get it wrong. Because the ultimate aim of pursuing a path of meaning and purpose is constructing a life worth living, we cannot just give free rein to every harmful part of ourselves. Instead, we need to feel more comfortable giving free rein to the best parts of ourselves. Step two, then, is to express yourself—the best of yourself. The other side of this work is limiting the potential for our bad stuff to cause harm.

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Often the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly can try to use the same avenues for expression. If I am leading an organization, humor could have Good, Bad, or Ugly results. Humor that brings people closer together and creates safe space for people to acknowledge mistakes is generally good. Humor that cuts people down, targets scapegoats, makes light of others’ suffering, or otherwise is used to make the joke-teller feel better about themselves is generally bad. Humor that interrupts the flow of meetings, distracts from work that needs to get done, or otherwise leaves people feeling that something very weird just occurred is generally Ugly. An effective leader who feels that being funny is a part of their authenticity would look for more ways to express “good” humor, would work to eliminate the use of “bad” humor, and would throttle back the “ugly” humor.

3. Observe, absorb, and learn. Watch what happens around you as you work on those first two steps. What happens when you let loose the best in yourself? When are you able to overcome hesitance or shyness and let your light shine? When is it harder? What events seem to coax your badness to come out and stomp around? When are you better at keeping the Bad in and letting Good find a better response? How are people reacting to your efforts to refine your Ugly? Is everyone staying in the happy zone a bit longer, or are there still those awkward pauses where people drum their fingers, listen to each other swallow, or back slowly away?

Are there ways to be more brave or expressive of the Good, restrain or take responsibility for the Bad, and tweak the Ugly so it gets a bit more “lovably quirky” and a bit less “awkwardly off-putting”?

Finding the true self

One interesting way to think about who the authentic you is comes from research by Rebecca Schlegel, at Texas A&M University. Schlegel has done several experiments showing that when people feel able to easily access their “true selves,” they feel a greater sense of meaning in life.

You might not hear a lot of people say this about an academic paper, but I actually find Schlegel’s experiment to be quite moving. She asked one group of study participants to “think of only those traits you are able to express around those people you are closest to.” This is intended to reveal the “true self.” Then she asked the other group of participants to think about a different kind of self, the one that faces the public: “Think of only those characteristics that you possess and are often able to express to others in social settings.”

Try those exercises and reflect on how they resonate with you. That gap between your answer to the true-self prompt and the public-facing-self prompt is the distance each of us must travel to become authentic. In an ideal world, as we journey toward greater meaning and purpose, that gap would grow smaller and smaller, until the way we act around those we are closest to is how we act around everyone. And even more than that, the way we act around everyone is an expression of the best within us, angled toward making our contexts better around us.

Each of us—at least the way we are right now—has a unique blend of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Being authentic means taking ownership over the whole bunch: working to express the Good more often, derail the Bad that wants to get out, and polishing up the Ugly.

In short, authenticity isn’t an excuse to be that a$%hole who is too lazy, entitled, or immature to resist letting the inner badness run around the house with scissors, a can of kerosene, and a pair of angry skunks. Authenticity is a path of continual growth toward the best we can become, the most we can contribute, and the meaning that will make life worth living.

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