The problem with authenticity

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Written by Paul Matthews on 18 September 2017

I have long had an uneasy relationship with the idea of authenticity and ‘being authentic’ in the way that it is used in arenas like leadership. If you ask people what ‘being authentic’ means, they will usually say something along the lines of people being true to themselves.

The implicit subtext of this is that it is good to be ‘authentic’ and bad to be ‘inauthentic’. Authenticity is seen as a quality that helps us be better human beings, and in an organisational context, better at being leaders and productive team members.

My objection is simple. How can anyone not be true to themselves at any given moment, even if that self is somewhat mercurial?

Authentic: Real, true, not counterfeit or copied. Representing one’s true nature or beliefs.

If you ask someone if they are being authentic, can they ever truthfully say ‘no’?

When we accuse someone for not being authentic, it is almost like saying they have some illness that good people don't get.

If a young man, let’s call him John, starts showing off in a group of friends when there is a pretty girl present, and showing off is not something he typically does, do we say he is not being authentic at that time? If we say someone is ‘not being authentic’, what do we mean?

Are we saying John is not being himself? Really? Who else can he be?

I think John is being authentic, but the authentic self that shows up is the self that thinks that showing off will impress the pretty girl. In other words, he is always being authentic. His environment, his beliefs, his past experience, his heroes, his mood, his blood sugar and energy levels, his state of health and stress, and the people around him, will all have an effect on the ‘self’ that shows up at that point in time.

However, if you ask someone else if John is being authentic, they may say yes or no depending on what they think the authentic John should look like. Authenticity, then, is in the eye of the beholder, and is judged by the beholder.

If I think you are doing something that is ‘incorrect’ for you, then I will say you are not authentic, but it may simply be an aspect of you I have never seen, or seen but dislike. I am making a judgement based on how I think you ‘should’ behave.


One of the keys seems to be consistency. If someone is consistent, we start to believe we can rely on that consistency, and therefore have some certainty, and trust, in them and their behaviour. If someone behaves outside of that norm, we tend to label that as not being authentic in a pejorative way.

When we accuse someone for not being authentic, it is almost like saying they have some illness that good people don't get. John’s friends may accuse him of not being authentic. They feel uneasy because he is putting on an act that is unlike his usual self, particularly if they judge his behaviour to be counter-productive.

It is the use of that word that bothers me. It is the wrong word. Really, all John’s friends can say is that he is not being consistent, or not being his usual self.

John’s behaviour might not be consistent, but it is still authentic, it is still him. I think the cry for authenticity is a big stick that people use to beat up others with. It smacks of taking the fake moral high ground, by saying ‘you are not being the person I think you should be, therefore you fail’.

The next time you encounter a statement about authenticity, ask yourself what is really meant.


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and an expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how L&D can help achieve business targets.


Resli Costabell

Submitted on 22 September, 2017 - 15:18
If John is a "young man" trying to impress a "pretty girl", then his authenticity lies in him being an authentic pedophile. He needs to focus his sexual attention on adults, not children. <para> And why choose an example of a man showing off to a "pretty" girl (or even a pretty woman)? Is her prettiness pertinent, in that in 2017 we're still assessing women primarily by their attractiveness to men? Or could the author have described John's attraction to a woman who is interesting, bright, and fun? <para> Could the author have chosen an example that was not all about the man as active and his friends as forming opinions, whereas the "pretty girl" is just the passive recipient of his showing off? <para> It's the drip drip drip of everyday sexism. I'm surprised to read it in a forum for HR professionals.


Submitted on 22 September, 2017 - 16:14
Hi Resli - thanks for the comment. I'll notify Paul to see how he'd like to respond. Many thanks, Jon

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