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Authenticity: Noble Aim or a Management Myth?

Bob Little 

May 11, 2018

Authenticity is good, right? It speaks of honesty, integrity, trust, and being “true to yourself.” Most people would say it’s right up there with mindfulness and empathy on the list of positive traits to develop. What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, actually! At least, authenticity in the workplace is a double-edged sword, according to some business consultants. And the contradictions of being authentic at work are explored in the Mind Tools article, Authenticity.

Stefan Stern, visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School, London, and co-author of the 2017 book, “Myths of Management,” says that authenticity isn’t always a desirable trait in a manager. He argues that, to be effective, managers must adopt different personalities for different situations.

Stern says, “People have had enough of ‘fake news,’ but what about ‘fake managers’ – those bosses who put on an act when they’re with you, but then behave differently when you’re not there?”

Richard Lowe, Director of HR and training consultancy, Hewlett Rand, says, “Each manager or leader has their own personality, preferences, style, strengths, and weaknesses. And he or she will respond to a myriad situations in different ways. That all goes to make them who they are – and, thus, authentic.”

Organizational Authenticity

“That said, another way to look at authenticity is through an organizational lens, considering the roles that organizational values, attributes, behaviors, and expectations play in developing leaders and managers,” Lowe continues.

“These are the bedrock for managers when making decisions and, hopefully, acting appropriately.

“In the banking crisis of 2007-08 and subsequently, the sector’s leaders acted as themselves rather than meeting the expectations of their responsibilities as organizational leaders.

“While this was authentic on a personal level, it demonstrated inauthentic organizational leadership, to everyone’s detriment.

“What’s important for all of us involved in developing leaders, is to clarify authentic leadership within the context of each organizational setting. This will help these leaders define the attributes, values, standards, and expectations that provide clarity of what it means to be authentic as a leader within their own role.”

Writing for Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, Stern asserts that “just being yourself” is an inadequate strategy for managing and leading people effectively. He argues that effective managers adapt their behavior to fit the situation they’re in.

He asks, “Is that being fake? Or is it simply effective versatility?”

This Is Who I Am

Mark Snyder, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, has explored this issue of behavioral versatility, or, as he calls it, “self-monitoring.”

Snyder says that “high” self-monitors are conscious of their image and may try to appear more confident than they really are. When this works they may seem assured and in control. But they can also arouse suspicion that they’re being insincere and inauthentic.

Conversely, “low” self-monitors may insist on “being themselves” whether it’s helpful or not. They can also remain stuck in limited behavior patterns, even when the environment around them has changed and requires something different.

“This is who I am” may sound like a confident, even a defiant, statement. But, if that person is in the wrong place at the wrong time, that particular brand of authenticity will be of little use.

Authentic Chameleons

In their 2015 book, “Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?,” Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones say that managers should “know and show themselves.” That is, they should not be too distant or mysterious.

However, Goffee and Jones go on to say that bosses need to be “authentic chameleons.” They must be true to themselves but, also, adaptable.

They advise leaders to “be yourself, more, with skill.” In other words, they advise managers to “show more of yourself, but with sensitivity to the situation.” It’s a case of accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

If you’re a member of the Mind Tools Club, you can learn more about Goffee’s ideas regarding authenticity in this Mind Tools podcast.

Lifelong Learning

The need for lifelong learning applies to management style as well as to technical knowledge. As the coaching guru, Marshall Goldsmith, has put it, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

There’s no guarantee that old tricks will succeed in a new and more demanding situation or job. Thoughtful managers will want to improve their repertoire of interpersonal and presentational skills.

In her 2015 book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra is deliberate about the title’s word order. That’s not because you have to “fake it until you can make it,” she says, but because sometimes you have to “experiment until you learn.”

Ibarra says that managers need to, “Move forward to a future version of yourself that has a core, but that also has learned new things and grown.

“The pursuit of authenticity can be wholly self-centered. People you manage don’t want full transparency.

“They want you to behave like there’s some kind of interdependence, and that you have to work with people. It’s not just about being yourself, it’s about creating productive working relationships. It’s not just about you.”

Five Key Takeaways About Authenticity

Stern says that would-be successful managers and, especially, leaders should consider five points:

  • “Just be yourself” is bad advice. Which “self” are you talking about? Managers have to play many different roles in the same working week.
  • Authenticity isn’t necessarily a virtue. No one wants an authentic egomaniac. There may be aspects of your personality that would be better hidden.
  • Stay true to your values, not to the way you behave. Adapt your behavior to fit the situation.
  • Wrong person, wrong job, wrong time? Then move on. Authenticity can’t help you if you’re in an unsuitable role. Pretending to be what you’re not can’t help you either.
  • Personal growth is important. It’s not inauthentic to grow and become a different, better person. A “growth mindset” allows you to imagine becoming more.

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