The paradox of work authenticity

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I was at the Indeed Interactive conference for two days this week. I went to a couple of panels and mostly tried to schmooze and/or drink and eat my way through parts of Austin. I would say I was mostly successful, but probably could have been better on the schmoozing. We’ll get them next time, Tiger.

One panel I went to was with a professor at Columbia University who does a lot of research on “authenticity.” I imagine that’s actually a challenging job in The Era Of The Gram, where not a lot of people are truly authentic, even if they claim they are.

In this discussion, though, I kept thinking about what “authenticity” really even is. I guess it means … you are being your truly unique self most of the time, even if there’s some warts therein? That seems like a good definition. Now we come to a few issues, though.

Where do we spend a lot of our time?


What do executives claim about work?

That they want A-Player innovators with uniqueness and personality and those who “bring their authentic selves to work.” That’s in a lot of mission statement copy, I’d bet.

What often happens if you “bring your authentic self to work?”

You get fired.

Now look, there are places where you can be yourself, whether that’s yoga pants every morning, hangovers every morning, lots of discussions about Paramore, or whatever else. Those places exist, and they’re great — although sometimes you’ll sit cubicle-adjacent to a female who talks a lot about sex, and that can get tedious — but those workplaces are not normative at all.

Most managers feel overwhelmed with the admin side of their job, the meetings they are often forced to attend, and the constant need to manage up and show their value to bellowing decision-makers. That’s more common than Paramore discussions, for better or worse.

As a result, managers don’t often want to manage down. They just want good little target-hitters that check the right boxes in the PM tool.

And then this happens. I am an expert on this because it’s happened to me at every single job I’ve ever had. A person (i.e. me) tries to be authentic, and some person higher-up does not like that. So higher-up person goes to my manager and complains. Now my manager has to come to me and check the box of talking to me, even though I was just being myself. So now my manager feels overburdened even more, because instead of talking to me he should be helping some guy with a sales deck, and I feel resentful that I can’t be myself at this place without some sweat-hog up the hierarchy complaining about me (but never talking to me directly, naturally).

What I just described is more common than any of us are willing to admit. “Authenticity” is great as a suitcase word, but in execution it is much more complicated. In reality, “being authentic at work” is much more about code-switching and knowing when, and in what groups, you can be authentic. I myself have never been very good at that.

The other elephant in this room

We talk about personal branding a lot these days, and while it’s no doubt important, wouldn’t the sheer fact that you are trying to actively cultivate a personal brand make said brand less authentic?

For example: I know about 15 females who wouldn’t let their husband take the first post-baby hospital pic until the makeup and light was just right, etc. That is totally logical, but I mean, is that authentic? Absolutely not. So if this bringing of life into the world is now a deep part of your personal brand and everything is church clothes and goo goo gah gah Stories videos, is that actually authentic? Are you showing us the vomit and the shit up to the neck? Right.

I’d argue the work equivalent is how people hide behind being busy as an excuse for everything. It’s completely inauthentic to say how much of a team-player you are, then literally never help with anything because of how overwhelmed you are with task bullshit (or how much you’re lying about that).

Now I’ll leave this one for you: Is authenticity real? And is it even possible at work without getting the ol’ pink slip?

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