Getting to know you: Understanding “Authenticity”

Authenticity has been a huge buzzword in business for a while. As I read it, businesses mean that a gay employee should not have to hide his husband’s photo in a desk drawer; a parent—of whatever gender—should not have to pretend that being at the kid’s school play is less important than sitting in a meeting; a Black employee can wear her hair any damn way she pleases, even (especially) if it doesn’t look like “white” hair.

Hiding one’s true self requires an awful lot of effort, effort that most of us would much rather spend on—oh, I don’t know—doing our work. And, yes, just about everyone “covers” some aspect of their personality, as this excellent research report by Deloitte made clear a few years ago. Even straight, white men—the folks that everyone but Beyoncé assumes “run the world”—even half of them have something they cover. Imagine what we could all get done if we stopped covering and just lived our lives.

“Authenticity” is starting to generate a backlash, though. And that makes me sad, both as a writer and as a human being. If you have never been in a position where you felt you had to hide some part of who you are, you are very lucky indeed. Federal law now recognizes my marriage, but in more than half the states in the U.S. an employer could fire me for putting my wife’s photo on my desk. So authenticity means a lot to me as a person.

And as a writer and writing coach, I know the most effective way for my clients to connect with the audiences they want to reach is to allow themselves to be seen as human. By which I mean vulnerable (so they can demonstrate their strength) and occasionally fallible (so they can show how failure enabled their later successes). As the cliché goes, nobody’s perfect. Audiences want to feel that.

And whether it’s a speech or a written piece, audiences also want to connect with your real personality. Are you introspective? Let us in on your thought process. Are you funny? Don’t be afraid to make a joke. I’m not saying to turn your presentation into a Robin Williams-style free-association free-for-all. But laughter is a great gift to give people, and there’s no quicker way to create a bond between you and the people reading your words or listening to you speak.

What does authenticity NOT mean? It does not mean saying the first thing that pops into our heads. It does not give people a license to be publicly rude or sexist, as this op-ed from The New York Times implies.

But what if I am authentically rude or sexist? I hear you ask. Then the norms of polite society—and corporate culture, which tends to enforce its norms more forcefully—will soon put you in your place. And I hope you enjoy it.

Brené Brown posted a rejoinder to the Times op-ed on LinkedIn this weekend and restated her complex definition of authenticity. Have a read:

“The core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.”

That’s who I want to be. That’s who I want my clients to be. How about you?

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