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It Started With an Innocent Question
I was asked the other day by someone applying for a job if they should use the term “authentic” when describing themselves as a leader. My answer was almost immediately, “yes.” I went on to explain that you are an authentic leader when you display genuine and transparent behavior, values, and actions and your words and your actions match. I further explained that authentic leaders are characterized by their genuineness, self-awareness, ethical decision-making, and a focus on building meaningful relationships. I was happy with the explanation and so was the other person. After we concluded our discussion, I began to think that maybe there are circumstances and situations where authenticity can actually be a downside, or even hurt us in some manner. I also began to think that maybe we don’t really want people to be totally authentic all the time.
While authenticity is generally seen as a positive trait, it seems there can be some downsides or challenges associated with being authentic in certain situations. As leaders we have to be emotionally intelligent to what is happening with individuals, groups, teams, and even organizations and other cultures. So, I asked myself, “Do we ALWAYS want people to be “authentic?” Let me offer some possible situations where authenticity may get us in trouble or cause us some problems.
Authenticity as Applied in Socialization
One of the first things that comes to mind is social rejection. During the socialization process there is a psychological contract between the individual and the group. Being totally authentic might lead to social rejection or isolation, especially if your authentic self doesn't align with societal norms or the expectations of a particular group. People who are different may sometimes face discrimination or exclusion. Regardless of attempts to be “inclusive,” if someone does not meet their end of the psychological contract this can lead to exclusion, isolation, or worse, it can then lead to conflict. Authenticity can sometimes lead to conflicts as it involves expressing your true thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. This expression can potentially clash with the opinions and values of others, resulting in disagreements or tension, especially if you are in a group where you already recognize that your values and beliefs are widely different than the other members of the group.
Authenticity as Applied to Vulnerability
The other side of this is the idea of clashing ideals are feelings of vulnerability. Authenticity often involves opening up and being vulnerable, which can be emotionally challenging for many people. Sharing your true self may expose you to criticism, judgment, or emotional pain. You may also be misunderstood if you do become vulnerable. Your authentic self may not always be fully understood by others. People may misinterpret your intentions or misjudge your character based on your authentic comments or actions, leading to misunderstandings. In a professional setting, these misunderstandings may have serious professional consequences. In some professional settings, complete authenticity may not be encouraged or may even be discouraged. Sharing every thought or feeling at work, for example, could have negative consequences for your career, as well as cause you some legal concerns depending on what your “authentic self” did or said.
Authenticity as Applied to Risk Avoidance/Management
Another area to consider are privacy concerns. Sharing too much of your authentic self, online or in public, can raise privacy concerns as you are willing to provide information that can be used for malevolent reasons. It also might expose you to unwanted attention or even security risks. Imagine an elected official being “totally” authentic and saying exactly how they feel about a member of the public in a formal meeting? Imagine the impact that could have on relationships. Authenticity can affect relationships differently. While it can deepen some connections, it may strain others if your authentic self doesn't align with the expectations or values of those people you're close to. This could also lead to self-doubt. When you're authentic, you might question yourself more, as you're constantly evaluating whether your actions and expressions align with your true self. This self-reflection can lead to self-doubt. For people who suffer from the imposter syndrome, this can enhance the syndrome effects.
Authenticity as Applied to Culture
The last thought I have for possible issues caused by being authentic all the time is that of authenticity in some cultural and social contextual considerations we may be in and need to think about. The degree to which you can be authentic may vary based on cultural norms and/or the specific context. If you’ve traveled some, especially to locations with a vastly different culture than your own, you know some cultures or social situations value conformity or reserve over individuality. Western culture is more focused on individualism because we all have our inalienable rights! Other places are not so, and value pluralism or conditions in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, and/or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society and the focus is on what benefits everyone more than the individual.
Putting It All Together
If we really consider the attributes of authenticity, the downsides of authenticity can vary widely depending on the individual, the context, and the people involved. While there are potential drawbacks, authenticity is still highly valued by many for fostering genuine connections, personal growth, and a sense of self-fulfillment. However, I would argue that we cannot just be 100% authentic all the time and still need to use some measure of degree of authenticity to avoid the pitfalls. Balancing authenticity with emotional intelligence, self and situational awareness and social sensitivity can help mitigate some of these downsides while still staying true and authentic to oneself.
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