Personal Brand

Keeping it real

Keeping it real

Tuesday, 05 March 2019


Authentic - ADJECTIVE

Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.

the letter is now accepted as an authentic document

  • Oxford English Dictionary


The idea of authenticity is a powerful one. Being authentic is a goal, and these days even something of a moral imperative — and it is essential to the idea of creating a personal brand. But as with all the simplest ideas, it can be deceptively complicated. How do you know what is authentic to you — rather than reactive, conditioned or transient? Is something authentic if it never changes, or if you did it once but felt it strongly? Or is something authentic just because you say it is? If ‘authenticity’ or ‘being true to yourself’ are the Grail for making strong career decisions that resonate — and allowing people to understand who you are and what you are all about — then perhaps we should question exactly what this means.


“Being authentic is much more than ‘being yourself,’” says Gareth Jones, co-author of Why Should Anyone Work Here? What it Takes to Create an Authentic Organization. “If you want to be a leader, you have to be yourself — skillfully.”


In this statement, Jones sums up a major issue with the cult of ‘authenticity’ — namely that being authentic is not the same as “anything goes, in any situation,” and that in business, as well as in life, considered behaviour (some might even say, strategic behaviour) that is aligned with our sense of self is perhaps the better solution. But does this external curation of our traits make us “inauthentic”?

Adam Grant, Professor of Management and Psychology at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t think so. He noted in an article for the New York Times last year (i) that, “We are in the Age of Authenticity, where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.” He continues: “If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.”


Certainly, it could be argued that no one in the office really needs to experience the more out-there aspects of ‘essential you’, such as your hatred of coriander or passion for sun salutations. However, there are numerous high-profile examples of confident individuals who successfully bring their ‘quirks’ to the office - such as PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who is so committed to being her authentic self at work she’s been known to walk around barefoot and sing.


What, then, guides the authentic self and how do we know if we have it? One body of research highlights a personality trait called self-monitoring as a key factor in determining how much you are aiming for authenticity. High self-monitors are constantly scanning their environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly to avoid social awkwardness or offending anyone. A low self-monitor, though, is guided more by their inner states, regardless of circumstances — and therefore perhaps the more “authentic” self. Low self-monitors often criticise high self-monitors as chameleons and fakes, but who is right?


In truth, consistency is hard in real life for many people, with plenty of internal and external variables to contend with. In a rebuttal to Professor Grant’s piece (ii), psychotherapist and author Ira Israel challenges his definition of authenticity as actually one of congruence (when what one reveals to the outer world matches his or her inner workings) — and states that trying to be congruent, having personal integrity and following your heart might be better things to shoot for than the nebulous idea of ‘authenticity’, which he argues does not exist. Back in the 1970s, American literary critic Lionel Trilling suggested we, too, should avoid trying to find authenticity and instead aim for sincerity (iii). Controversially, though, he felt that instead of searching for our inner selves to express, we should start with our outer selves and then strive to be the people we claim to be.


Everywoman expert and personal branding consultant Jennifer Holloway, disagrees: “Authenticity isn’t the same as hoping, and there is no point in doing that. You either have it or you don’t, and if you tell me something in your brand that I don’t really get then I will stop buying it. People smell a fraud at 50 paces. Why spend time selling people something you hope to be, when what you already are is amazing anyway? That is a brand that appeals to people, so work with the ingredients you’ve already got. Ultimately, you’ll know you’re being inauthentic if you put something in your brand and you really struggle to deliver it.”


In that vein, the exercise of considering, clarifying and condensing the things that define you to provide a guiding framework can be invaluable. “When it comes to a brand, the effort is in honing in on the handful of things that are really authentic to you. Everything you mention about yourself can be authentic, but what is the stuff that really matters to you, and happens 90 per cent of the time, rather than 10 per cent?”


Is it more the sense, then, that no one knows you better than yourself that should ultimately guide you? “For some people, knowing what’s authentic to them is a gut feeling,” says Jennifer. “For others, it’s a more logical exercise, where they rate adjectives, values and attributes on how strongly they feel about them and how often they display them”. But ultimately — and perhaps reassuringly — she insists that authenticity is something you shouldn’t have to think too much about. “If you’re being authentic, it should just come naturally. I think it’s just noticing what you do — and using that to work out what your brand is.”


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