By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs
Note: This is the last of a three-part series on authenticity at work. I have looked at the power of authenticity (part one), how to find and keep your authenticity (part two), and this post covers the pitfalls of fake 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.
Plenty of management consultants and coaches are available to help you be more authentic. Some of them will go deep and really help you align what is going on inside yourself with your work; these are people who understand that real authenticity is an inside job. They start with where you are and what is true for you (your authentic self, part one), and they help you keep that authenticity in the workplace (part two).
In contrast, there are also those who will work with you to “manage” your authenticity in an attempt to help you succeed in your productivity, team, and leadership goals. They say things like, “A person cannot be authentic on his or her own. Authenticity is largely defined by what other people see in you and, as such, can to a great extent be controlled by you.”, and “…the expression of one’s authentic self is a complicated and contrived act,” (both quotes are from Goffee & Jones, 2005, p.1 and p.8, respectively). These people are not bad people, but they do share what I believe are incorrect convictions that: 1) authenticity can only be conferred on us by other people, and 2) we must spend a lot of time and energy trying to control how other people perceive our authenticity.
These convictions are probably at least partially in response to a culture in which a person’s inner experience is considered to be both unreliable and unimportant. External “measurables” such as productivity, wealth creation, hours at work, etc. are considered critical. But the inner state of workers is only considered with respect to these measurables. For instance, the mindfulness-at-work movement could only move forward in Silicon Valley after studies showed that mindfulness practices improved productivity and hours spent at work. Never mind that people who practiced mindfulness were actually happier and more aligned internally with their job goals.
In fact, in the first blog post I wrote in this series, I intentionally pointed out the externally measurable impact of authenticity, because I know from experience that the idea that our inner space matters all by itself is met with resistance. I decided to skip to what I know works, when introducing authenticity: Showing how some external measurable is influenced by our inner states. But now I want to talk about this deeper cultural problem, because focusing only on external measurables is not scientifically defensible.
Although many academic studies score authenticity (and other inner-state measures) according to external measures rather than self-reports, self-reports are not only reliable, they’re much better than external measures for getting at what someone is actually feeling. Aside from when questionnaires and tasks are used to ask people to explain why they do things (people are notably horrible at accurately explaining their behavior), well-designed questionnaires and tasks that focus only on uncovering what a person is experiencing do turn up replicable results (Price & Barrell, 2012). The same person will report the same thing over time, the same group of people will report the same things at different times, the same type of experience will reliably change people’s experience, etc.
Why do self-reports about internal states work? Because if there’s one thing a person knows, it is how they are feeling. Whether it is numb, afraid, delighted, agitated, surprised, angry, depressed, nothing at all – if we stop to take a look, we basically know what’s there. We often don’t know why we’re feeling it, but we know what we’re feeling. This fact has been known a long time, but was largely ignored during the behaviorist era of psychological research, launched in the early 1900s by John Watson, who stated, “Human psychology has failed to make good its claim as a natural science. Due to a mistaken notion that its fields of facts are conscious phenomena and that introspection is the only direct method of ascertaining these facts, it has enmeshed itself in a series of speculative questions which, while fundamental to its present tenets, are not open to experimental treatment” (Watson, 1913, p. 176).
The basic idea that internal states are not open to experimental treatment is provably false.
PROOF: I measure your subjective pain prior to putting an ice cube in your palm, then I put an ice cube in your palm, then after 1 minute I measure your subjective pain again. I have used experimental treatment to alter your internal experience. Or as Max Velmans more poetically said it, “One does not have to wait for the advance of neuroscience to know that one has been stung by a bee!” (Velmans, 2009, p. 46). QED.
Sure it’s made science easier, over the past century, to pretend that inner states can’t be measured and therefore don’t matter. But the facts are they can be measured and they do matter. When it comes to authenticity according to my definition, it can only be measured according to self-report, because authenticity means being aware of and connected to what is true for you. No one else can tell you what is true for you or whether you are aware of and connected to that. In fact, try to think of a definition of authenticity that does not include what someone feels like on the inside. If you find one, I would argue that you are instead defining an outcome of authenticity rather than authenticity itself.
Okay, so back to this idea that others define our authenticity and that authenticity is a difficult and complex feature of our personalities that we must attempt to manage. Where do these ideas lead?
Well, first, they obviously lead to inauthenticity. If I am trying to appear authentic to others and I have to spend a lot of time making sure my external behavior matches someone else’s idea of what is authentic, then I am not being authentic. I am not following step 1 of the steps that lead to finding my authenticity: Admit your failure to control everything. Instead of admitting that failure, I’m doubling down on my desire to control how others respond to me. People will see through this in about 10 seconds, your desired goal won’t be reached (or if it is, then you’ll be forced to keep up the ruse), and you will be sad. No kidding. It’ll suck.
Second, these “inauthentic authenticity” ideas can lead to reducing diversity or maintaining a lack of diversity in an organization. I know this may seem like a leap, but let me explain.
So I was teaching a brief class on “How to find your voice” to women in technology. It was basically a class about finding and keeping authenticity, even when it feels terrifying to do so. After the class, one woman approached me and asked how I could advise her. She kept feeling like she wasn’t offering enough to her team, that she didn’t really feel powerful enough at work to be creative and bring her whole self to work. Her team thought she was great, but she didn’t have that experience. She felt there was more she could bring. She was a black woman, and in an offhand comment she mentioned that she always made sure to never drop her “g’s” at work. After saying that, I told her that if she doesn’t offer who she is – including herself as a powerful black woman who might periodically drop her “g’s,” then she was doing the team a disservice. When she considered that idea, she felt a shift toward feeling her own power, and it felt good.
Now according to the authenticity managers, people who want to lead must carefully monitor their level of authenticity so that their behavior doesn’t shock the people they are trying to lead. People who are different from the expected norms, in other words, anyone who might add a different voice to the workforce and thus improve the quality of the work, must curtail their authenticity. For instance, “Unless female leaders acknowledge and validate some of the prevailing organizational norms surrounding gender roles, they will find it hard to obtain acceptance from male followers” (Goffee & Jones, 2005, p.7). Apart from the ridiculous idea that well-functioning teams lump people into leaders and “followers,” this statement that women must validate the very norms that assume they are less intelligent and less worthy of payment than men in order to be considered an authentic leader is pretty crazy. And it’s not true.
A woman who is a truly authentic leader stands up and uses her behavior and her voice to point out incorrect expectations about her behavior and reset those expectations. That doesn’t mean an organization is ready to deal with that leader’s authentic position, but it is an authentic one if the leader herself feels that these expectations are not appropriate. In other words, authenticity is not ever about managing other people’s responses to who you are. It is about acknowledging your own experience of who you are, and seeing where that leads. It’s more terrifying than trying to control everyone else’s reactions, but it’s also much more satisfying.
Here’s another diversity-crushing, and also false, statement: “Leaders may be profoundly self-aware and essentially authentic but not because of contemplation or analysis; they are not characters in some Woody Allen film” (Goffee & Jones, 2005, p.7). A side note: I’m picking on this particular article because it’s a well-cited article about authenticity in management, and I frankly believe the editors of the Harvard Business Review, who published the article, should know better.
There are actually two diversity-crushing statements here. First, the idea that contemplation or analysis will not help you become authentic. Really? So how do you become aware of what’s true for you? Not look inside? These authors never define authenticity, but they must know it has something to do with what is true inside someone. Second, the statement suggests that characters in a Woody Allen film (Jewish people? Neurotics?) can’t be leaders. Provably false, again.
PROOF: Steve Jobs. Totally neurotic. Totally a leader. QED.
Look, you basically have to choose. Do you want to try to manipulate people into thinking that you’re authentic? Or do you want to actually be authentic? Different outcomes, for sure. In the first case, other people around you might buy your act, but you won’t. You’ll get lonely, sad, and exhausted. Trust me, I’ve tried that route. In the second case, you might get fired (if you authentically don’t want your job and say so, or you authentically want to harass your co-workers and you don’t have enough contemplative wisdom to recognize that at a deeper level you’re just afraid, lonely, or angry). You also might get promoted (if you authentically are a great employee and a good fit for the organization’s leadership, or if you are authentically a harasser at an organization that promotes harassers). The central point is not what happens, but how you feel. If you choose actual authenticity, you’ll feel connected to yourself and others, your stress level will drop, and your creativity and sense of well-being will rise. It’s your life, and your inner space. Love it, don’t leave it!
Note: This blog post was written under the attentional-enhancing influence of Focus@Will “Up Tempo” channel, one of the many channels with neuroscientifically inspired focusing music available on Focus@Will.
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. 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.
Goffee, R., & Jones, G. (2005). Managing authenticity. Harvard Business Review, 83(12), 85-94.
Price, D. D., & Barrell, J. J. (2012). Inner experience and neuroscience: Merging both perspectives. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Velmans, M. (2009). Understanding consciousness (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.