What does it mean to be authentic in an age of design and complex social systems? It’s not as simple as you think and, as two high-profile psychologists point out, not something that’s easily agreed upon, either.
Over the past week, two high-profile psychologists and authors Adam Grant and Brene Brown have been engaged in a “debate” (or public disagreement? argument? — it’s hard to really tell) over the concept of authenticity and the role it plays in life — professional, personal and otherwise.
The debate was started by an op-ed post in the New York Times written by Grant who starts by referencing a description of Authenticity used by Brown in her work:
We are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”
Brown, reacting to this piece on LinkedIn, corrects Grant by offering a better definition she’s used and criticizing his narrow-framed perspective on what authenticity is, which she states as:
In my research I found that the core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.
For Grant, it’s about dropping the filters and saying what’s on your mind all the time, while for Brown it’s about embracing vulnerability. The two are not the same thing, but nor are they opposites or incompatible with authenticity, rather they point to the problems of creating firm positions in complex systems.
A matter of boundaries
Brown’s definition adds something Grant’s interpretation leaves out: boundaries. It’s how we draw the boundaries around what we’re doing, and how and for what effect that determine the appropriateness of filters, expression and vulnerability. It’s also about context. Grant’s argument tends to be the one-sized-fits all with the kind of blanket statements about what he believes others want and need to hear. In his Times article, he ends with this pronouncement for readers:
Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.
That Grant was so quick to equate authenticity with no-filtered thinking is somewhat surprising given his background in psychology. It shows a remarkably simplistic view of human psychology that isn’t befitting his other work. Yet, he’s managed to not only publish this piece in the Times, but doubled-down on the argument in a follow-up post also on LinkedIn. In that piece, he again equates authenticity with a sense of absoluteness around always saying what’s on your mind by drawing on research that looks at self-monitoring and expressiveness.
Here are some of the items—you can answer them true or false:
- My behavior is usually an expression of my true inner feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.
- I would not change my opinions (or the way I do things) in order to please someone else or win their favor.
- I’m always the person I appear to be.
People who answer true are perceived as highly authentic—they know and express their genuine selves. And a rigorous analysis of all 136 studies shows that these authentic people receive significantly lower performance evaluations and are significantly less likely to get promoted into leadership roles.
In some fairness, Brown’s work can be easily muddled when it comes to the matter of boundaries. While she’s responded very clearly to his comments and work, there’s been a lot of slippage between boundaries in her work. Anyone who has read her books and seen her talks knows that Brown models the embrace of vulnerability by drawing on her own personal challenges with being authentic and valuing herself, illustrating points from her research with examples from her own human struggles. Yet, I recall reading her books Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection thinking to myself the stories often stumbled from being instructive, supportive and healthy examples of vulnerability to feeling like I was being used as a platform for supporting her self-development, rather than to learn from her.
For me, this was less about any one particular story of her being vulnerable, but the cumulative effect of these stories coming together as told through a book. It was the volume not content of the stories that shifted my perception. By the time I finished I felt like I’d been witness to Brown’s self therapy, which weakened my perception of her being authentic.
This cumulative effect is partly what Grant is referring to when citing work on self-monitoring. He’s not commenting on moments of vulnerability, rather it’s on creating a presentation of personhood that lacks a sense of boundaries.
The answer to authenticity might be in that complex middle space. If Brown is open to and eager to share her vulnerabilities it’s important that I as a listener be willing (and able and prepared) to welcome in that discussion. But what if I am not? In Grant’s demarcation of boundaries that might not matter, but then we end up with a set of rules based on his (and many others) view of authenticity, which can devolve into something that Brown connects to a traditional, stereotyped ‘male’ expression of authenticity:
Many of the behaviors that Grant associates with authenticity don’t reflect the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, or to set boundaries. They actually reflect crude, negative gender stereotypes. Male authenticity is associated with being hurtful, arrogant, manipulative, overbearing, and, in plain speak, an asshole. (italics added)
We must not stop listening, but we also must be cautious in how much (and when and in what context) we share and tell. Too little and we simply replicate the power positions of the past and surrender our true selves to social norms. Too much or done poorly and we might get a little closer to where Grant is.
What is authentic baloney (or Bologna Sausage for it’s original name)? Baloney is a indeed a thing, but it’s also a fake, synthetic meat product all at the same time. It’s a prepared meat that is designed to combine various ingredients together in a particular way that doesn’t really fit in any other types of sausage, yet is still ‘sausage like’. It’s difficult to describe using the language of sausage, yet also doesn’t have another peer to compare to (except Spam, which is a similar strange version of something familiar).
It is, in a sense, an authentic artificial product.
These two things — authenticity and artificiality — can coexist. Herb Simon wrote about design being partly about the science of the artificial. Stating in his book of the same name:
Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be – in short, with design.
Design is about what could be. Authentic is about what is and what could be, speaking about intention as well as reflection on what one believes and wishes to project to others. Baloney is just that. It’s a manifestation of a design of a meat product that is intended to reflect how a meat product might be when one combines some of the less sought after cuts of meat together with spices, herbs and fats. It’s not real meat, but it’s not fake either.
What is our authentic self?
Our authentic self is changing. If one believes we come into the world and grow into a form, then who we are as a child is largely deterministic for what comes afterward.
It’s interesting that this ding-dong on authenticity from Brown and Grant come when my colleague Mark Kuznicki from The Moment published a long, extensive and revealing piece into the process that his firm engages in to recalibrate and strategically plan its future. Taking Grant’s view, this level of openness in discussing the challenges and opportunities could quite easily be construed as over-sharing self-monitoring. Brown might argue that this kind of public self-reflection indicates a reflection of that organization’s true self. I think it’s both and neither.
Authenticity is very much like baloney, which takes many forms, has different cultural interpretations and expressions and levels of acceptance and quality within it. What makes for good baloney really does depend on a great many factors and the person who’s consuming it. Just like baloney, what gets lost in these arguments is position within the system.
Systems perspectives are partly about understanding where one is positioned in them, which determines what is seen, how something is perceived, what kind of information is available and, most importantly, the meaning that is attached to that information in order to assess what to do and what impact it might have.
Part of that perspective is time.
A developmental perspective
My authentic self is not the same as it once was. Part of that is because at various stages of life I was more (early childhood) or less (teen and young adult years) comfortable with expressing that authenticity. But interestingly, as I got older, what was truly authentic was becoming more complicated and harder to assess. It’s because I’ve become far more complicated and with experience, knowledge and the accumulation of both I’ve transformed that original person into someone different (and also very similar).
To provoke developmental thinking I often ask students or audiences the question: Is a 40-year-old an 8 times better 5-year-old? Is a person who was five and said: I want to be a princess / astronaut / firefighter and ends up being a senior policy advisor for the government, an accountant, a social worker or designer just someone who failed at their goals?
Are these even relevant questions? The answer is: no. I once wanted to be a firefighter, but now I can’t imagine doing that job. Why did that change? Because I developed into something different. My authentic self sought different challenges, opportunities and required other things to nurture itself. I still love to draw, doodle and play sports, just like I did when I was five. That part of me, too is authentic.
As authenticity becomes more of a fashionable word and thrown out for use in many contexts it is worth considering more about what it is, what it means, and how we really nurture it in our work. As I think both Brene Brown and Adam Grant would agree: Authenticity is too important to fake, lest it become baloney.
Photo credit: Untitled by themostinept used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.