Authenticity in Business - Easier Said Than Done

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Authenticity in business is a complex and nuanced issue, and it’s getting a lot of attention these days. For me, being authentic, in any context, means being genuine and real. To say that an object is authentic, means that it is original, not false or copied. To say that a person is being authentic suggests a quality of trustworthiness, and an implication that the information they are putting out is supported by facts or experience. It also means that they are not putting on a show just to get me to make a certain decision or behave in a certain way. That last part is really about sales, and I’ll circle back to that in a few ...

I was working with someone recently who taught our team a process for evaluating and scoring efficiency across various departments of a client’s business. It was a very detailed and comprehensive whole-systems process. Everyone involved was rather impressed, and it didn’t take long before we were all fully bought in.  Yet, when it came time to do work internally with the advisory team, that person didn’t follow the agreed upon process (they actually went and made up their own process without consulting the rest of the team) and then cost the team members in the project a lot of extra time to fix the inputs and make it all work for the final client presentation. That, to me, is completely inauthentic – to claim to be an expert in efficiency, systems-thinking, and stakeholder management externally, but to fail to operate with those same high standards internally. As a result, I lost faith that the new tool I’d learned for measuring organizational efficiency was really all it was cracked up to be, and I lost trust in this person’s ability to meet the needs of the team. To be clear, the client is very happy, but when the external offerings don’t match the internal actions, we’re left with big questions. Now, if that had only happened once, I might have chalked it up to a mistake, or a misunderstanding. But, as it was not the first time, nor even the second, my tolerance for this show of inauthenticity (and my trust in this person) was significantly lowered.

If I’m going to suggest that a client take specific action to make their life better, improve their business, enhance their work-life balance, and I’m claiming that it’s going to save time, save money, increase profit, or increase happiness and well-being, you can bet I’ve at least tried it myself, if I’m not using it every single day.

 

Easier said than done, though, no?

Well, of course! What in life that’s worth doing isn’t easier said than done?

In my favorite HBR article on the paradox of authenticity, Herminia Ibarra states that: “… learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous.”

So, of course it would make sense that we have to change course occasionally and experiment – try on new points of view and even personas – in order to get to a place of authenticity. And sometimes, it’s going to feel a little, well, contrived. But where do we draw the line?

 

I do believe firmly that there is something to be said for “Fake It ‘til You Make It.” 

When you are new – when you have no track record – either because you are in a new position or because you are starting a new business, it’s really important to show up with confidence.

Note: I didn’t say lie about your accomplishments! … or about your circumstances, but sometimes you just have to show up acting like you know what you’re doing even when you’re not sure you do! Also note: this is usually much more about convincing yourself than the other person. We are our own worst critics and chances are you know or are capable of a whole lot more than you give yourself credit for. Of course, we all know people who operate on the other side of that – their lack of confidence in themselves shows up as ego, bravado, and over-confidence, and we can all smell it a mile away. Please don’t be that person. To be clear, that’s not the part of “Fake It ‘til You Make It” that I admire. Everyone can tell when you’re trying too hard, but you might inadvertently do that a few times before you get to a place that feels comfortable. When in doubt, try putting on your Big Girl/Boy pants and showing up with confidence, and pay attention to the reactions you get. If it doesn’t work, what’s the worst that can happen? If it does work, it’ll help you build that natural confidence so it gets easier the next time. Unless you are a sociopath, you won’t be very good at sustaining a “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality over the long term, anyway.

 

Holding yourself to a standard

When we hold ourselves to a certain standard and we live up to that standard, everyone can feel it. Not only do you stand taller, exude more confidence when speaking, but everyone around you can tell. And the more you live your values this way, the more natural confidence, and authenticity, you build!

When you hold yourself to a standard, it means you are not trying to hide anything. That you are forthcoming about your shortcomings. That doesn’t mean over-sharing. But it does mean admitting when you’ve made a mistake and making every effort to correct it in a way that benefits everyone involved.

 

How this applies to SALES

In business, we are almost always selling … our product, our brand, ourselves, our ideas – internally and externally, we have to be able to “sell” others on the course of action we want to take or that we want them to take in order to be successful in any endeavor.

But, it doesn’t have to feel like “selling” if you are being truly authentic, living your values, and if you truly believe the product or service you are offering will help your audience solve whatever specific problem they may have. There is no need to emotionally manipulate in the way that we might think when we think of traditional sales. Instead, it’s about connecting, human to human, creating a relationship, and offering a narrative that speaks to the specific needs of your customer – no scripts or pushy conversion tactics needed.

If you become a really good listener and learn to quickly attune to your customer’s or client’s real problem or frustration, and show them that you understand, you’ll never feel the need to do a big song and dance. You simply offer them a clean solution to their problem, and if it’s the right deal for them at the right time, they will buy.

 

In sum, there are times when going against our natural inclinations will serve us well and perhaps even help us grow. I never want to hide behind authenticity as an excuse for simply staying in my comfort zone. But authenticity requires balance and skill, and practice if it’s going to be used appropriately in business. It requires thinking “about how the person inside of you comes across.”

It’s a skill worth exploring and honing. It’s a big part of the journey I’m on, and I’d like to develop exercises and activities to help people enhance their ability to use it wisely. If you have ideas to share around this, I’d love to hear from you! What kinds of tools or practices would help you hone your ability to show up authentically in your business or at work?