…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.