…being asked (or, worse, told) to be authentic.
I’ve long had a sneaky suspicion that having to tell yourself (internalising), or wanting to proclaim to others (externalising), that you are ‘being authentic’ suggests that something else is going on.
What is authenticity?
I’ve noticed a fair amount of focus on the rather interesting ‘authenticity’ word within the organisational world over the last few years and yet I’ve often felt a deep discomfort about its (mis)use.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was uncomfortable. A recent read of Edward Deci’s work1 (I think) assists:
“Authenticity necessitates behaving autonomously, for it means to be the author of one’s actions – acting in accordance with one’s true inner self.
The key to understanding autonomy, authenticity, and self is the psychological process called integration. Various aspects of a person’s psyche differ in the degree to which they have been integrated or brought into harmony with the person’s innate, core self.
Only when the processes that initiate and regulate an action are integrated aspects of one’s self would the behaviour be autonomous and the person, authentic. It is in this sense that to be authentic is to be true to one’s self.” (Deci)
Wow, that sounds a bit deep! But the key point is that authenticity is reliant on autonomy.
The opposite – control
It’s worth stating that the opposite of ‘autonomy’ is ‘control’ and, as such, we can understand human behaviour in terms of whether it is autonomous or controlled.
“To be controlled means to act because one is being pressured. When controlled, people act without a sense of personal endorsement. Their behaviour is not an expression of the self, for the self has been subjugated to the controls. In this condition, people can reasonably be described as alienated2.” (Deci)
Deci goes on to identify the two types of controlled behaviour (i.e. responses to control) as:
- Compliance; or
If you are doing something out of a sense of ‘having to’ rather than ‘choosing to’ then you aren’t acting autonomously.
Conversely (and perhaps not so obvious), if you are not doing something (or doing something else) in order to defy, you are also not acting autonomously – your defiance is a result of an attempted control, rather than your true volition.
The meaning of autonomy
So, if autonomy is key, I should make clear as to what is (and is not) meant by Deci when using the ‘autonomy’ word.
“To be autonomous means to act in accord with one’s self – it means feeling free and volitional in one’s actions. When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic.” (Deci)
“Choice is the key to self-determination and authenticity.” (Deci)
It follows that if you are being controlled (don’t have free choice), then you won’t be truly authentic.
Don’t ask or tell me to ‘be authentic’. This doesn’t make sense!
Further, if you find yourself wanting to add a ‘this is me being authentic’ proviso within your oral or written word then it might be worth thinking about why you consider this to be necessary, and what this means.
Addendum: clearing up a few misunderstanding
Deci identifies a couple of misunderstandings regarding authenticity and the ‘self’ which need to be cleared up:
- Equating ‘self’ with ‘person’ and in so doing, suggesting a problem of being ‘absorbed with the self’; and
- Confusing autonomy (and freedom) with independence (and aloneness)
Regarding Misunderstanding 1: Some social commentators have suggested a (problematic) narcissistic preoccupation with the self within some western cultures. Deci sets out how this is a misunderstanding:
“Narcissism involves desperately seeking affirmation from others. It involves an outward focus – a concern with what others think – and that focus takes people away from their true self.
The narcissistic preoccupation results not from people’s being aligned with the self but from having lost contact with it…
…Narcissism is not the result of authenticity or self-determination, it is their antithesis.” (Deci)
Regarding Misunderstanding 2: Other social critics suggest that autonomy leads to separation. Deci clears up this misunderstanding as follows:
“…the misconception that when people come into fuller contact with themselves, when they become freer in their functioning, when they unhook themselves from society’s controls, they will opt for isolation over connectedness. But there is no evidence for that. Quite the contrary, as people become more authentic, as they develop greater capacity for autonomous self-regulation, they also become capable of a deeper relatedness to others.” (Deci)
(As I understand it) humans can be summarised as having three innate psychological needs: competence3, autonomy and relatedness. Put simply, autonomy and relatedness (or its opposite, independence) are very different concepts.
Deci points out that I can be:
- Independent and autonomous (to freely not rely on others); or
- Independent and controlled (to feel forced not to rely on others)
1. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan are two of my giants – and I’ve just added a ‘giant’ record onto this blog for them. Their research on motivation (and the resulting ‘self-determination theory’) has been ground-breaking for decades.
2. Alienation: “The concept of alienation…philosophically means to be separated from one’s self.” (Deci)
3. Competence: This has been expressed by others as ‘the desire for mastery’
4. All quotes in this post come from the highly readable “Why we do what we do” by Edward Deci.
I’m hoping to find the time to write some more in this area, particularly regarding what Deci explains as ‘autonomy support’. I believe that this is a hugely important concept for anyone and everyone who is trying to help others.
2 thoughts on “The comedy of…”
Interesting perspective Steve. As a southern kiwi male, I had always conformed to the societal norms that expressing emotion (i guess a subset of being authentic) was seen as a prissy thing to do. A sign of weakness. In today’s work environments we actively encourage diversity and inclusion. Something that has been lacking from your average kiwi work place for a long time. This drive towards a more inclusive environment has allowed many people to become more authentic, myself included. I feel this has increased relatedness in general. Maybe this is your point? An environment where you can be authentic is not the same as being told to be authentic.
If someone asked me to be more authentic, I would automatically assume that they had found me disingenuous. That would be a concern in itself.
Harold Hillman has written some wonderful books about his, very long, journey to dropping the Impostor Syndrome and becoming more authentic in his leadership style. I have seen changes in leaders he has coached.
I understand your points regard control and being told to be authentic is a failing in itself.
So in a roundabout way I’m asking are you being told to be more authentic, or are we asking people to create an environment where you can be authentic?
I see appropriate collaboration and independence as complementary. Both require self-awareness through introspection.
Most work requires collaboration by multiple subject matter experts. Therefore collaboration. That’s why we build cross-functional teams.
And all conclusions are created between one pair of ears. That requires confidence and mental effort. One can. Initiate that thinking or abdicate and consent without judgement. That is typically the result of control from others without respect for your mind and judgment.
The alternative is to respect the independent thinking that drives independent action. That is served by aligning on goals or outcomes.
When you hire someone you’re paying for their brain as well as their brawn. Isn’t it a shame to tell them to check their most valuable past at the door?