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How To Become More Authentic


Organizational development expert, executive coach and author of new title Leading Change, Paul Lawrence talks about what authenticity means.


How to recognise authenticity

To most of us authentic means being real, genuine, true-to-self. So how do we know if someone is being authentic? It's hard to tell in the moment. Some people speak with great conviction. You believe their every word. Does this mean their being authentic? Not necessarily. They may just be being sincere.

When asked - how can you tell if someone is lying? Sean Lock (English comedian) replied "What they've said turns out not to be true." In other words it takes time to tell if people are telling the truth. It also takes time to tell if people are authentic.

Arsenic and Old Lace

The difference between sincerity and authenticity was most beautifully illustrated in the 2003 BBC television documentary ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ (available on YouTube last time I looked!) Henry and Richard Chaplin buy a bankrupt business and endeavour to turn it round. They make a significant proportion of the workforce redundant and attempt to cajole the rest of the workforce into working harder. The workforce is demoralised and fearful of Jeff, their supervisor, whose style is unrelentingly autocratic. Richard calls a meeting where he delivers an inspiring speech in which he tells the workforce they are the best people he has ever worked with. He announces the departure of Jeff and promises there will be no more redundancies. The speech is passionate, convincing and clearly sincere, and the workforce is visibly excited. A week later Richard wonders if he's made the ‘biggest blunder’ of his career. He re-hires Jeff without telling the workforce why. Then a month later he announces a new wave of redundancies, almost half the workforce. It's obvious that though Richard is an earnest and sincere individual, he's making it up as he goes along.

Becoming more authentic

Authentic leaders are self aware enough to know what's important to them, how they are most likely to behave in a crisis, what makes them feel most anxious. Their messages are more likely to be consistent, enduring and confident over time. This says authenticity isn’t only a matter of sincerity, but is a consequence of becoming more self aware.

Suppose I see myself as honest and open. I tell myself I always respond frankly when asked a direct question. Imagine I am unexpectedly approached by a peer who asks me for feedback. In the moment I hear myself prevaricating before walking away without telling him what's foremost in my mind. My actions don’t fit the story. Do I dismiss my behaviour quickly as an aberration, blame it on being in a hurry, or tell myself my peer wouldn't have listened to the feedback anyway? Or do I take the time to reflect upon my actions and learn more about myself, who I am, how I respond in certain situations? By choosing to reflect, and forming an intention as to what I will do next time I'm asked for feedback, and making sure I reflect the next time too - I come to know more about myself, and become more confident in my ability to predict my own behaviour. Becoming more authentic is a gradual process, a daily routine. Suppose in the example above I choose to redefine myself as honest, truthful and above all considerate. I want to test this new story, see if it fits. I test it with my wife that same evening who reminds me how often I forget our wedding anniversary. Another opportunity to learn about myself!

In short ...

  • Develop a theory. Who am I? What's important to me? How does this show up in the way I behave?
  • Form an intention. What aspect of myself am I most curious about? In what kind of situation is this aspect of myself likely to be tested?
  • Do stuff. Seek out opportunities to test yourself.
  • Seek feedback. How did others experience me?
  • Reflect. What did I just learn about myself?

It sounds simple - but how many of us are this purposeful? How many of us go looking for feedback on a regular basis? And how many of us take the time to reflect?

Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn by the author.