Yes, Be Yourself: In Defense of Authenticity

Yes, Be Yourself!Over the weekend I saw a NY Times op ed article pop up in my RSS feed (yes, I maintain an RSS feed) that rebuts the idea of being yourself as a path to success. I’ve gone on record a few times advocating for authenticity as a way of life. I believe–and research supports–that being true to oneself is a way to feel happier and perform better. So why the sudden pushback from this particular author?

Well, I think two things. First, the author (Adam Grant) adopts a narrow view of what success means, and in doing so, discounts the value of authenticity. Second, I believe he is being disingenuous in his presentation of what authenticity is. By the way, Brené Brown, perhaps the world’s foremost expert in authenticity, has already written an excellent response to Grant’s op-ed that rebuts some of his inaccuracies in terms of representing research, so I will not re-tread her footsteps (at least not too heavily).

So first, the narrow focus on a particular definition of success. Grant cites the case of Cynthia Danaher, who, on assuming a leadership position at Hewlett-Packard in the late 1990s spoke about her feelings of insecurity when introducing herself to her new team. She reflected years later that she would not have chosen that same opening gambit if she were to do it again with her experience behind her. I’m not sure, first of all, why Grant chose her an example of how being authentic is harmful; Danaher held her job at HP for many years after this speech and doesn’t seem to have suffered any long-term career damage. Plus, it’s interesting that there are no more modern case studies to support his point, especially with social media providing a view into “authentic” attitudes of leaders.

But beyond that, it also begs the question: Is the only legitimate goal business success? Would it have been so wrong if Danaher had intended her words to create a relationship with others? To alleviate her anxiety by giving voice to it? There are legitimate goals beyond the C-suite, and authenticity may enable them. In fact, research on being an “optimal human” shows that setting self-congruent goals and pursuing them is a way to be happy. Sounds like authenticity to me.

Which leads me to my second point: I believe Grant is deliberately disingenuous in how he presents the notion of authenticity. He conflates it with, variously, a lack of self-monitoring, an inability to grow, learn, or change, and a failure to adapt appropriately to professional situations. None of these are accurate. Rather, what he describes as sincerity toward the end of his piece, a thoughtful adaptation of situationally appropriate language and behavior used in a way that’s consistent with one’s personal style and goals, is much more like authenticity. Being “authentic” is not rigidly clinging to your current wants and needs, never trying anything new, blurting out any thoughts that come to mind without a thought of how they might impact listeners. Those behaviors are immature and in some cases pathological. If Danaher had to do it over, she wouldn’t share her feelings of anxiety not because she no longer wants to be authentic, but because her skills as a leader have grown to a place where she can express her authenticity more professionally.

To go back to an example Grant uses of A. J. Jacobs, who spent a week saying whatever was on his mind (a tactic, it’s worth noting, called radical honesty, not authenticity) and proceeded to offend pretty much everyone with blunt comments: It sounds like Jacob’s problem was less “being authentic” and more “being an asshole.” An authentic person whose values include nurturing a relationship with someone will combine honest content of speech with judgments and tone that honor those values.

There is no evidence that being authentic is harmful, even if you’re not Oprah. Your version of authentic may not land you in the same level of financial and business achievement that Oprah’s did (although let’s also be clear: Hard work, circumstance, and professional networks played a role too).  But it has a much better chance of netting you sweet rewards like mutually caring relationships, careers and projects that align with your skills, strengths, and values, and the good feeling that comes from being true to yourself.