Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why "Be Authentic" is Bad Advice

I’m not sure when the word authentic became the ubiquitous adjective it is today. (I somehow suspect Oprah had something to do with it.) Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to read anything or listen to anyone speak about communication, leadership, presentation skills, interview skills, branding, or even relationships without the word authentic being spouted – repeatedly.

I was at a live interview recently where social psychologist Amy Cuddy was speaking about her new book Presence with author Susan Cain. They must have used the “a”-word at least a dozen times. Now I have HUGE respect for Amy Cuddy and have shared her YouTube video on Power Posing a gazillion times but hearing the two of them use authentic with no clarification surprised me. (I'm happy to say that in her book, she DOES clarify what she means by authentic and it's very interesting.)

It was interesting that Ms. Cuddy explained the difference she sees between the word Presence, the title of her book, and Charisma. (She explains presence as more like the quality and ability to be present and connected to your environment and your listener – which can be a learned skill and charisma as an often innate charm which can sometimes be shallow and abused.) 

I’ve been feeling for some time that someone needs to start a conversation about the difference between being “your authentic self” and being “your effective self.” So here goes!

Let’s start with the Webster definition* of the word. Authentic:
  1. worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact 
  2. conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features
  3. made or done the same way as an original
  4. not false or imitation:  real, actual
  5. true to one's own personality, spirit, or character
(*Bolding and numbering is mine, but the order is accurate. Interestingly, there is an obsolete definition of authentic- “authoritative” that was listed as #1 and a musical definition was #4.)

I believe most people, when they use or hear the phrase “be your authentic self,” think of definition #5 - true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.
The unfortunate problem I see with this definition is the tendency for people to take it too literally. Some people feel that it’s out of “character” for them to dress a certain way or wear their hair a certain way so they don’t. They can assert that it’s their “personality” to use a certain language or tone of voice, to not smile, to keep to themselves, to push the envelope - so they continue to exercise that part of their “personality” regardless of whether it’s effective or not. This gives rise to thoughts and statements like – “I’m being authentic, it’s their problem if they don’t like it.”  But is it really their problem? When you don’t get the job you want, the promotion you may deserve, the work environment you cherish,  the client you need or the second date you crave – who suffers?
Let’s be honest, there are times when being yourself is not being your best.
 When being that definition of authentic just doesn’t work! 

As a communication expert who dabbles heavily in brain science, the fact is, there are certain visual, vocal and verbal habits that are more positive, receptive and engaging to the average human brain. To not recognize and take these norms into account is a gamble. Sometimes gamblers win but odds are against them. 

I believe we as thought leaders, branding experts, coaches and the like do a disservice when we tell people just be “authentic.”– without explaining what we mean by authentic.
First of all, I think the word genuine is more appropriate in many of the instances where authentic is now being used. It IS VERY important for people and brands to be genuine  - (defined as “free from hypocrisy or pretense : sincere” or “sincerely and honestly felt or experienced”)
But if we must use the word authentic, I believe the more accurate definition is definition # 2 - conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.

This definition of authentic can mean “reproducing the essential features” of the “original” YOU but turning those features into a YOU 2.0. This way you can still feel authentic AND be more effective.
I was an incredibly shy child.  Even after pushing through my shyness to be an actress and to teach communication skills like I do now, a huge part of my personality is to not speak up and to avoid the spotlight.  But as a business owner I had to eventually ask myself. “How’s that working for you?” It wasn’t. 

So I ask you, when you think of your authentic self, is it working for you? If not, identify the “essential features” that make up YOU and highlight, polish and reproduce those features. Then lose or mitigate any features that get in the way of your being effective to create YOU 2.0.  It doesn’t make you any less authentic. According to Webster’s definition #2 you are still conforming to the original.

An Important caveat:  I was sharing my thoughts about this with a colleague. She told me she had a co-worker that she just couldn’t win over with her warm and friendly style which is very authentic to her. It’s important to realize that creating a You 2.0 doesn’t mean everybody will find your presentation or communication style effective. When you find people who don’t respond positively to You 2.0 you have two choices – accept that everyone is not going to like you OR if the relationship is an important one, learn the art of subtly adapting to match their style. Just like you wear different styles in 90 degree weather then you do in 17 degree weather you need slightly different styles with different people. But that’s a topic for an upcoming post.  When being Authentic Just Isn’t Working!” Stay tuned!

Please feel free to share your opinions I know you have some. And if you want help on how to go from YOU to YOU 2.0 contact me.