Everywhere I go, I hear people talk about authenticity as a deep yearning in our organizations—and indeed, a deep, deep yearning in our lives. I understand that. I can truly say I have seen authenticity be an irreplaceable catalyst for all kinds of truly remarkable business and personal breakthroughs in my life, in my team, and with my clients. In fact, at Blue Beyond we think of authenticity as so essential we have it right at the top of our list of core values in our team.
So, we found the recent exchange between Adam Grant and Brené Brown on authenticity in The New York Times and on LinkedIn Pulse really intriguing—and a strangely familiar exchange, in a way.
With admiration for both of these thought leaders and their many contributions to this topic, I want to offer an “in the trenches” view about authenticity from a CEO and a team who works on this stuff everyday.
Fundamentally, the exchange between Adam Grant and Brené Brown mirrors what we’ve so often seen in our work trying to make authenticity real in our team and in our work with clients. In short, this exchange highlights three key misconceptions about authenticity:
Unfortunately, when the authenticity conversation starts with these misconceptions lurking as assumptions, we end up in a cul-de-sac, dangerously close to missing the whole point. While all these misconceptions are hinted at in Brené’s response (and explored more fully in her research), I do want to bring these to the foreground and add a bit about our experience in actually trying to do this stuff every day.
It’s what we do together, it’s how we are together, it’s the environment we mutually create—and it is way, way, way more about WE than “me.” Authenticity isn’t about what “I” get to do, or who “I” get to be, or how my behavior reflects “my inner feelings.” Authenticity—when you’re really trying to build it as a norm in an organization— invites us not to think about ourselves, but to consider how our common humanity and distinct perspectives make us better together. Authenticity is not a candy store for our ego. And in everyday practice, authenticity is really not a noun—it’s more like an adverb. It modifies our collective action—it adds quality, purpose, and direction to how we are together and how we act together. It’s not a virtue to possess; it’s a collective practice to build.
Authenticity is not about lowering social norms around kindness, appropriateness, and compassion and it’s certainly not permission for any one of us to show up with our bad-day behaviors in full flower. Authenticity starts with a commitment to basic trust and psychological safety—and the work required to develop the awareness and skills to show up in a way that supports these norms. What that means in practice is that a commitment to authenticity increases the need for real-time feedback, coaching, and skill building to help people know how to show up to one another in a kind, compassionate, and psychologically safe way.
Authenticity assumes that people are imperfect and that most of us will show up like a jerk once in awhile – but a commitment to authenticity doesn’t give the jerk-moments the power to set group norms. In fact, when imperfections and stresses show up, there is the potential for these to truly be teachable moments where we can help one another to learn these skills and strengthen psychological safety, not erode it.
Finally, authenticity is not only about showing up sincere, vulnerable, and imperfect. Authenticity is equally about showing up as learning, accomplishing, and achieving. Authenticity is the distinct quality of an environment where people get to be both imperfect and accomplished, sincere and learning, vulnerable and achieving. Authenticity does not put anyone on a pedestal through his or her vulnerability (or through his or her self-assurance). Authenticity builds common ground for us all to be distinct, human, imperfect, and excellent, together.
So, to paraphrase and build on Brené Brown’s definition, authenticity is when a group of people actively and deliberately cultivate a psychologically safe environment where people build trust and establish norms that enable people to be imperfect, vulnerable, learning and achieving—as individuals and as a team.
We can attest that authenticity is for real and we don’t need to worry about having too much of it, as Adam Grant seems to fear. We see every day that it is essential to building organizations with high-trust cultures where both the business and the people thrive.