Authenticity, a bird showing its colors - Image by wasi1370 from Pixabay
Career satisfaction,  Communication,  Executive Presence,  Happiness,  Leadership,  Personal Brand,  Self-leadership

Is “Authenticity” Backfiring On You? Here Is Why

Theresa, a senior developer in a tech firm, said that their management encouraged them to be authentic. It prompted her to be passionately sharing some of her opinions. There was only one problem: others saw it as negativity bias, resulting in some stern feedback from his manager.

Prakash, a senior Director, was frustrated with his team’s progress and didn’t hide it during the team meeting. It cost him a promotion.

Jim, a business development manager, said that he felt lonely to be constantly fighting for the right thing when others were too comfortable tolerating the mediocre decisions the team was making.

All three stories have one thing in common. They thought they were authentic in sharing their opinions, but somehow it worked against them. So, why do organizations seem to be encouraging people to be authentic and reprimanding when they do so? The reason is, this “authenticity” bandwagon misses mentioning the difference between unfiltered blurting VS respectful opinion sharing.

According to organization development researcher Patricia Faison Hewlin, “…when we experience authenticity—when we feel that we’re living out our personal values and perspectives—we feel a greater sense of well-being. We have lower levels of depression, we tend to be more satisfied with life, and we are highly engaged in our jobs”. The path to an authentic life is self-development work. But unfortunately, when we are not aware, our unedited self-expression could impact others. And that is where we have some work to do.

Root Causes

Here are some common root causes well-meaning people show up as hurtful while speaking their truth.

Stress reaction

Behavior under stress gets our best part. In the above example, Prakash, the Senior Director, was going through tremendous pressure during that time. He later realized that he reacted to his internal stress rather than acting mindfully. When under stress, we often lose our capacity to balance our focus between results and relationships. We default to one way or the other, resulting in less desirable outcomes. 

Know thyself, understand your stress levels, learn to regulate them. It is not a once-and-done thing; it takes mindful practice every day. 

Negativity bias

Seeing the world with a half-empty glass view skews our opinions. For the sake of being “right,” we miss out on the bigger picture and the overall team health. For Jim, another insightful find was his lack of emotional vitality or joy. His mind was so focused on performance that he didn’t cut any slack for himself (self-critic).

Self-awareness of our worldview and biases is an excellent place to start. For example, I did an EQ assessment with Jim and found that his overall positivity is lower than the healthy level. While we can’t change it overnight, some awareness helps us pause and make a different choice, thus breaking our habitual patterns.  

Cultural difference

One common issue I noticed is that people from another culture have difficulty balancing their authenticity with the local norms. Despite living in the US for 15 years, Theresa still finds it harder to speak her mind. Coming from a Bangladeshi culture, I had my fair share of awkwardness navigating the polite US Northwest culture.  Even someone from the US could have culture shock when moving from one region to another. Such nuance and intricacies are often labeled as “politics” and creates an ingroup and outgroup tension. 

Understanding and appreciating our cultural differences is the key. So, in addition to the cultural awareness, I coached Theresa to focus on 10% positive and “yes-and” while responding to her teammates.

Bottom Line

Theresa, Prakash, and Jim worked on developing their self-awareness and authentic self-expression. As a result, they discovered who they are, what strengths they bring to the table, and what beliefs, assumptions, or biases trigger them from their best self.  Michael F. Steger, the Founder, and Director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose wrote,

Authenticity is a path of continual growth toward the best we can become, the most we can contribute, and the meaning that will make life worth living.”

Such a process with my clients elevates my self-awareness and challenges me to become more authentic in my path – every day.

Related resource: An HBR article: The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why

Join me for this FREE bi-monthly event Q&A with Sharmin, a safe, confidential space to explore your career and leadership questions. The next one is Friday, July 23, on Zoom at noon PST/3 PM EST. Only 10 spots per session.

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