I just wrote about how authority, authorship, and authenticity are etymologically related and can improve the way we interact with each other.
And then there’s a New York Times op-ed talking about, “Well actually, that’s a terrible idea and only works if you’re Oprah.”
In the Times article, Adam Grant, who teaches psychology at Wharton’s School of Business, argues that society should promote sincerity rather than authenticity on the assumption that sincerity doesn’t involve self-revealing without regard for others or failure to self-monitor but is rather “being the person you claim to be.”
No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out your mouth.” —Adam M. Grant, New York Times, June 5, 2016
I agree that some discussions of “being yourself” seem to assume there’s a core, fixed Self to be uncovered or promoted, and that’s incredibly Platonic. A more Aristotelian view would include the idea that there’s not a fixed Self but we rather show up in a given moment and are accountable for how we present ourselves there and then.
But even with that shift of perspective on the Self, I couldn’t see how Grant’s distinction between what’s genuine and what’s consistent added to what authenticity researchers have actually said. In fact, what I’ve read from Brené Brown and others suggests that doing what we commit to do is fundamental to authentic life, relationships, and work. Authenticity is the consequence of setting up relationships that respect us and others, not just others, and not just us.
I spent some time talking about the article on Twitter this Sunday, and I wasn’t the only one who left it with a furrowed brow. So it was great to see Brené Brown engage the op-ed on her LinkedIn page. She specifically challenged the way Grant had used her research:
The definition of authenticity that I use in my work (The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly) is long and nuanced. Grant pulled nine words out of context. Why? Because using the central part of my definition of authenticity would have bankrupted his entire argument that authenticity is the mindless spewing of whatever you’re thinking regardless of how your words affect other people.
In my research I found that the core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries…
“Don’t be yourself” is terrible advice. Trying to weaponize authenticity feels gimmicky and opportunistic. Quoting my definition was a choice. So was perverting it. Grant’s question is relevant, but his conclusions and the presentation of those ideas lack both authenticity and sincerity.” —Brené Brown, June 5, 2016
Grant, following Aristotelian philosophy, sees virtues as the moderate median “between deficiency and excess,” and worries about the extremes. Brown, based on her research, argues that the construct of authenticity has bounds. Authenticity is like white “chocolate”: once you take the chocolate out, it’s not chocolate anymore.
Words have meanings, she says, and so do constructs like authenticity, so if we misunderstand those meanings, we can’t properly address issues that people experience while applying a construct in the relational world.
For people in most of my demographic categories, this isn’t a world that rewards genuineness, transparency, honesty, or sincerity. This is a world that rather rewards selective presentation and unquestioning norm compliance. We can’t fit in. But we can make ourselves sick trying, and should any of us succeed, even superficially, we’re praised for the shine on our bootstraps.
Who do we grant the liberty to choose emotional honesty, even when that means saying, “I don’t know,” “I’m not ready,” or “I can’t do what you want, so let’s work on an alternative?” So many people from so many slices of society have connected with Brown’s research because she offers an alternative to the usual way, a world in which leaders especially never say “I don’t know,” “I’m afraid,” or “I have doubts” and are framed as naive or ineffective if they do.
Fortune praises deception as a “leadership skill,” while Forbes describes it as a competence marker. That’s the climate of business, entrepreneurship, moving, and shaking in which Grant wonders about “too much authenticity.” But out where the rest of us live, there’s rather a shortage of trust. We expect leaders to lie to us—because they do—and we distrust what they say and how they manage information because we’re learning and they’re teaching us that they don’t prize integrity and consider it a disadvantage.
This is a cycle of doom. We have to scratch our way out, daily choice by daily choice and redesign by redesign, even if, at least for now, others stand on the sidelines and call us foolish.