By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs
Note: This post is part one of a three-part series on authenticity at work. I will be delving into the power of authenticity (part one), how to find and keep your authenticity (part two), and the pitfalls of “inauthentic” authenticity (part three). If you are interested in more details, watch a video of a talk given by Dr. Julia at the Consciousness Hacking House on May 11, 2016.
Authenticity has become a buzzword, at least in academia and business. According to the Harvard Business Review, between 2008 and 2013 the number of articles mentioning the word “authenticity” per year has more than doubled (see figure; Ibarra, 2015); a simple Google Scholar search tells us that this number has multiplied at least three times since 2013. So what’s the deal with authenticity?
First, a definition. I define authenticity as the state of being aware of and connected to what is true for you in this moment. For instance, if what is true for you in this moment is that you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, if you are aware of that experience and you accept that it is you who are exhausted and overwhelmed, then you are in an authentic state. On the other hand, you are in an inauthentic state if you either are not aware of your overwhelm or you distance yourself from the truth of your exhaustion and overwhelm, for example by trying to appear to have it all together (not that you would ever do that).
It’s critical to notice that according to this definition of authenticity, you do not need to verbally express what is true for you in order to be authentic. There are some situations where it would not be a good idea to verbally express your inner experience, but you can still know what it is. Regardless of what you say or do, being aware of and connected to your inner experience is the substrate of authenticity, and as I have mentioned previously, tuning into your inner experience is the key to aliveness and engagement at work.
Having said this, it is very difficult to be aware of and connected to what is true for you while simultaneously saying or doing something that is directly opposed to what is true for you. If you try this, you will likely feel inauthentic. You will at least feel disconnected from yourself, and probably the lie will also make you less aware of what’s true for you.
Many of us, including myself, know this from experience. In the past, I’ve wanted to evoke a particular reaction in someone else – for instance, I’ve wanted to make them impressed with me. So instead of staying connected to myself and hoping they are impressed with who I actually am, I have disconnected from myself and essentially lied to them to evoke my hoped-for response. Funny thing is, on the rare occasions that they were actually impressed with me, I didn’t care, because it wasn’t “me” I was portraying in the first place! They were impressed with a false version of me.
Think of a moment when you have done this yourself. For instance, maybe you were really annoyed with your boss, but you decided to compliment your boss about the very thing that annoyed you. In order to have made that compliment (which was essentially a lie), you had to distance yourself from your own experience. That distancing feeling is the telltale sign of inauthenticity, and it feels crappy.
So your quick check for authenticity is to ask yourself, “Am I aware of my inner experience and connected to what is true for me? If so, I’m in an authentic state.” No one else can tell you if you’re in an authentic state.
So if it’s just internal, why does authenticity matter? Well, for starters, we know and other people often know when we’re not being real, and no one likes it. For instance, fake smiles are not only easy to detect (Frank, Ekman & Friesen, 1993), but fake smiles evoke less pleasure and are matched with smiles in people who see them less often than real smiles (Surakka & Hietanen, 1998). On the other hand, people who report that they feel authentic also have signifiers of greater well-being and psychological adjustment (Kernis, 2003). In other words, authenticity matters because our own connections with others and ourselves blossom when we are authentic and these same connections wilt when we are inauthentic.
Now because psychology researchers often don’t trust people’s reports of their inner state even though some of the most consistent and reliable data in psychology are essentially reports of people’s inner states (mini-rant done for now), the definition of authenticity has been “operationalized” or put into a form that can be externally tested. What happens then is that authenticity, which is completely and entirely a subjective experience and can only really be reported by the experiencer, is warped into an objectively measurable behavior that can be rated by an observer.
So let’s go with the assumption that this “operationalized definition” approach to examining authenticity from the perspective of an outside observer is reasonable, and we’ll see where it leads. (Spoiler alert: Despite my misgivings, this approach leads to important conclusions about the power of authenticity and productivity at work).
A group of researchers led by Fred Walumbwa at Arizona State University did an impressive study using their operationalized definition of authenticity, specifically focused on leadership. A leader in an authentic state shows four behaviors, according to the authors: 1) self-awareness (the leader is in touch with what is going on internally), 2) relational transparency (expressing true thoughts and feelings while not expressing emotions that won’t work in the workplace), 3) balanced processing (analyzing different perspectives before coming to a decision), and 4) an internalized moral perspective (possessing a self-regulated internal compass for ethical behavior) (Walumbwa et al., 2008).
Note that all four of these behaviors would seem to arise in a leader if that leader is often in an authentic state. Why do I say that? Because if you are comfortable with being connected to yourself during the work day, then it seems to me that you are likely to develop or already possess self-awareness, relational transparency, balanced processing, and an internalized moral perspective – simply because you aren’t being tossed about on the winds of variable external measures of your value. In any case, this authentic leadership behavior, the authors propose, lead to the development of a similar authentic style among the people with whom authentic leaders work.
Walumbwa et al. (2008) tested the idea that authentic leadership at work, defined in their four-fold way and tested using their Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ), leads to higher productivity. One cool thing about their study is they first examined whether their questionnaire was any good using American participants, then they double-checked their questionnaire using Chinese participants, and finally they examined whether high rankings on the ALQ are related to work performance using Kenyan participants. As a result, they offer a truly cross-cultural study focusing on authenticity in the workplace.
They found that their ALQ questionnaire is a valid measure of authentic leadership, in that it was consistent and matched other related measures, and they also found that work performance ranked by supervisors is better when ALQ scores are high. In other words, leaders with more authentic behaviors are ranked by supervisors as having better work performance.
What’s fascinating to me about that study is that in addition to the four factors tested, an unknown single overall factor was primarily responsible for the correlations. Could this overall single factor be the actual, subjectively felt, experience of authenticity in the leader? My guess is yes, the actual subjectively-determined authenticity of a leader is the best single predictor of work performance on a team, when compared to the other four operationally defined predictors.
A follow-up study among 47 U.S. Army work teams again showed that supervisor-ranked work productivity scores were again related to higher ALQ scores among team leaders (Hannah, Walumbwa, and Fry, 2011). This study also showed that the strength of ALQ ratings across the entire team was critical for the relationship between ALQ rankings of the leader and work productivity, explaining about 16% of the variability in work productivity – and this despite differing levels of skill across teams. So the idea that authentic leaders end up creating authentic teams may be true, but in any case authentic teams are more productive regardless of skill level. This finding is exciting to me, because it matches my experience. When I work with authentic teams, we all get more done.
So how do you find and keep your authenticity in the workplace? Well, that’s part two of this three-part series. Stay tuned.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (by the way, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to apply to attend a small, invitation-only Silicon Valley lecture on authenticity and aliveness on May 11th). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
Here is the psychologically validated Authentic Leadership Questionnaire.
For an alternative view of authenticity and further reading, check out Harvard Business Review: The Authenticity Paradox.
Frank, M. G., Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1993). Behavioral markers and recognizability of the smile of enjoyment. Journal of personality and social psychology, 64(1), 83.
Hannah, S. T., Walumbwa, F. O., & Fry, L. W. (2011). Leadership in action teams: Team leader and members’ authenticity, authenticity strength, and team outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 64(3), 771-802.
Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-authenticity-paradox
Kernis, M. H. (2003). Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological inquiry, 14(1), 1-26.
Surakka, V., & Hietanen, J. K. (1998). Facial and emotional reactions to Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 29(1), 23-33.
Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure†. Journal of management, 34(1), 89-126.