In the heyday of this blog, social media was in its infancy — and it was a boatload of fun. The rules had not been invented and drilled into the collective content avalanche yet. License to play, and experiment. I remember the first interactions on Twitter, and the fail wail.
This blog was like a big laboratory for learning, acting out new ideas, commenting back and forth. Growth comes from this kind of activity. Once blogs became professional hubs and marketing platforms, it all became very serious. That's about the same time the word “authenticity” became popular.
Because once the fun, experimental stuff becomes the day job, our identity is closely associated with it. People become brands, brands need to uphold a certain reputation, and keeping some distance in communications is part of that.
It's the same trap companies fall into — obvious to customers and clients. Authenticity, the most truly prized brand attribute, right? (I wrote that 10 years ago, we've since reached peak use.)
What got you here… won't get you there
But there's a problem with our need to constantly needing to remember, “To thine own self be true.” It implies that we understand what we mean by real self. “We have a problem if we have to spend so much money just to be ourselves,” says Herminia Ibarra#.
Ibarra teaches people who've come to the point when what got them there, won't get them to what's next. She says that the way we think about authenticity poses a real danger to our capacity to learn and grow.
A classic example of this I encounter in my work is people who are amazing technical contributors who now need to get things done through other people. Translating concepts into easy to understand language is often not their forte. They're more comfortable within the technical (or scientific, or financial) domain.
To move others, however, we need to own our communication, and meet halfway in understanding what's on people's minds. it's not just as simple as a translation process. Identity is involved. An analyst is someone who's really good at analyzing information. It's core to who they are.
We get stuck in how we see ourselves… and how others see us.
I've seen that play out in senior leadership team meetings. Brilliant executives who had different areas of focus and skills who created friction. The problem is not just that the friction prevents them from shining even more because it keeps them from building meaningful relationships with their peers.
It impacts the business as well. Broaden the view to the company, and you now see missed opportunities for employee and client engagement. Getting things done efficiently suddenly gets in the way of effective. Get it done kind of people tend to not like stories. Even when they know they're effective.
Why? Because they don't think they're being authentic if they do. If you've been in the place where you could not make yourself do that, thinking it was like being manipulative, you might give me a call. I can help.
In all seriousness, it's hard to catch yourself. Is sticking to your way being authentic, or is it being rigid?
What does “authentic” mean anyway?
To tell the difference Ibarra gives three ways we use to define authenticity:
- being true to yourself, but which self? The past, today, the future? Does it condemn you to be the way you've always been forever? Or maybe your aspirational self?
- being sincere, saying what you mean, and meaning what you say. From Latin sine, and cera. Statue merchants might fill in imperfections with wax. Hence the signs on some shops to indicate they were the real deal.
- being true to your values, for example substance over form or no BS. But there's a time for every purpose. Once you become a leader, you need to broader your repertoire.
The trade-off is not between what got you here, values and integrity, and what's needed now. This is the moment we go and hide under a rock. A most conservative self shows up and accomplishes nothing. There goes effectiveness.
Effective communication is about tailoring the message to your audience. You cannot think yourself out of this paradox. You need to act your way out of it. A personal example is my decision to go back to where this blog used to be — conversational, thinking out loud.
At any points in our lives, we go through changes. The only way we make it om the other side is by getting through it. We do that by being curious, experimenting more, asking better questions, getting to know who's around us.
Our job is to own our role. To do it well, we need to be in the room where the conversation is happening. I worked with so many amazing leaders who did not have all the information, who had lost touch with what was going on in the hallways, how employees and clients experienced the product.
This is how I came to embrace my role of translator and coach. Communication plays a big role in creating the conditions that increase learning and engagement. it's a service. If it doesn't, act your way into it (with help.)
Right now I'm working on a project that gets me back into playful mode. I see a huge need for joy and desire to experiment in people's work and lives. Being playful with oneself is energizing. I'm with the ancient Greeks on authenticity — that which you do with your own hands. Being self-authoring.
It's not a trait. It's the the outcome of a process of learning about yourself. Wisdom is on the horizon. We're not static. Organizations are not, either. Learning is about doing stuff that feels uncomfortable, especially for high achievers.
Think different, by doing differently.