What Does It Mean to Be Authentic?

Michael Podger/UnsplashSource: Michael Podger/Unsplash

Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, often speaks of climbing the corporate ladder early in his career at Honeywell and becoming disillusioned with himself. He mentions wearing cufflinks to try and impress the board of directors. He recalls, “One day I’m driving home. It’s a beautiful day. I looked in the mirror and I’m miserable. I don’t like the businesses I’m in. I’m not passionate about that but most importantly I don’t like myself” (George, 2009). George was acting inauthentically to impress others and had a personal transformation which led him to switch industries and begin acting in a way that felt more congruent with his “true self.” Notably, in George’s retelling of the transformation, it was sparked by looking in a mirror, which presumably heightens one’s consciousness of the self. George would eventually move on to Medtronic and write several books about authentic leadership (e.g. Craig, George, & Snook, 2015). He would also help develop the course “Authentic Leadership” which is a central course on leadership at Harvard Business School.A

uthenticity is gaining traction in the field of leadership, but what does it mean to be authentic? Authenticity is about congruence between our deeper values and beliefs (i.e., a “true self”) and our actions. When there is a lack of congruence, this leads to an emotional force that seeks reduction. This posits a scientifically elusive but recognizable concept—the notion that there is an “authentic” or “true self” from which this lack of congruence is being generated (Harter, 2002; Sheldon, 2004; Strohminger, Knobe, & Newman, 2017). While an “authentic self” is recognizable from our everyday experience, it is not a concept incorporated into much of psychology. As Ken Sheldon, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Missouri states, “Although many of us would agree with the folk wisdom that we should try to be ourselves, social-cognitive theories have no way of making sense of this statement” (2004, p. 252).

Children with obesity can be bullied and teased more than their normal weight peers. They are also more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression, and lower self-esteem. The effects of this can last into adulthood.

Thus, the notion of authenticity has a skeptical hill to climb, in particular because many psychological approaches—most obviously social psychology with its emphasis on contextual determinants of behavior—have little ability to “make sense” of authenticity. Nevertheless, the notion of an “authentic self” accords with much of our experience. We can readily recall experiences when we were acting inauthentically—in a way that felt at odds with deeper values of who we believe ourselves to be (see Lenton, Bruder, Slabu, & Sedikides, 2013). We can also recall instances of being our “authentic self,” when we shared openly our opinions and perspectives and felt validated in doing so.

While plausible, however, the notion of an authentic self doesn’t seem like it can coexist as we play various roles in our lives—as an employee, spouse, friend, and family member. If we all play various roles, which one is the “real me?” Although we shift roles based on our context, we can still have a sense of a “true self.” Researchers have found that adolescents come to be concerned with what is their “true self” (Harter, 2002). They have explored this concern by having individuals list attributes of the self in different relational contexts (e.g. with friends, at school, with our mother or father), and then having individuals identify which attributes conflict—for example being “outgoing” with friends but “depressed” when around parents (Harter, 2002). Individuals vary in the number of attributes that conflict, ranging anywhere from one to 15 or 20 (Harter, 2002). When faced with these conflicts, Harter explains that some individuals “spontaneously agonized over which of these conflicting attributes represent true-self behavior, and which seemed false” (2002, p. 385). Nevertheless, when there are conflicts among these attributes, individuals can identify “true self” behavior, using descriptions such as “the ‘real me inside,’ ‘saying what you really think,’ ‘expressing your opinion.’ In contrast, false self-behaviors are defined as ‘being phony,’ ‘not stating your true opinion,’ and ‘saying what you think others want to hear” (Harter, Bresnick, Bouchey, & Whitesell, 1997, p. 844).

Julia Roberts (mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus): “I try to call my mother, Betty, with more regularity because I think, What if Hazel didn’t call me for two weeks? I’m able to see her mothering now from a different vantage point.”

Ultimately, whether we are a “multiplicity of selves” or have a “true self” calls for a both/and . Rather than a debate over whether we either have a multiplicity of selves or only one true self, we both shift ourselves given the context and have a sense of a true self. Thus, if we have a sense of a true self, we can be more or less authentic to it, and individuals vary in their authenticity. In measuring individual differences in this regard, Wood et al. (2008) ask questions such as “I always stand by what I believe in,” and “I am true to myself in most situations” (p. 399). They also ask questions about whether you feel alienated from the self, with statements such as “I feel out of touch with the ‘real me’”—much like the experience described by Bill George as he was driving home that afternoon.

In sum, authenticity is not as ephemeral as it might appear. It has an emerging body of research (most recently see Gan, Heller, & Chen, 2018), and, like Bill George, we can recall instances of being inauthentic, often due to a desire to conform and impress others. In addition, as you might guess, researchers have found a large number of correlations between authenticity and well-being (Wood, et al, 2008). Thus, it is worth engaging in the question of authenticity and making it a more salient experience to strive for throughout many contexts, even, and perhaps most importantly, at work.