Leaders who are content within themselves that they feel authentic may come unstuck with their staff if they’re not also perceived as authentic, according to recent research from the Netherlands.

Published by Dr Hannes Leroy of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, [1] the study suggests that authenticity isn’t beneficial for everyone in every setting.

“People get excited when they meet people who seem ‘real,’” says Dr Leroy. “Or when they have a leader who strikes them as authentic and straightforward. We increasingly expect people also to be authentic at work, and use authenticity as a standard by which we measure people.”

He notes: “For somebody who has a socially valued [identity] and whose authentic self just happens to fit well with what the organisation’s values, authenticity may be a win-win situation. It might seem very natural for that person to encourage other people to also be themselves, because that person’s experiences [of] being authentic are all good. But it’s not that easy for a lot of people.”

Leroy points out that many areas of leadership training are about asking questions to help you pinpoint your true self – such as: who are you? And what are your values? However, he warns, there is a risk that overt self-examination could open up a gulf or disconnect between your own, personal feelings of authenticity and the degree to which you are seen as authentic by those around you.

As such, he argues, leadership training should shift from ‘clarify your own values’ to ‘how your words and deeds are interpreted by others’ – and how you can actually influence your level of perceived authenticity. “Our research even indicated that people with political skills are better at this,” he says.

With all that in mind, Leroy offers three pieces of advice:

  • Be careful with calling yourself authentic, as feeling authentic in yourself sometimes negatively correlates with perceived authenticity;
  • If you make an important decision in your life – especially a work-related one – always take into account three truths to determine your authenticity: your personal truth (your own values and outlook on the world), the truth of your audience (look at who you are addressing and what are they expecting from you), and the truth of the context in which you operate in (the organisation or society in which you work);
  • As it is important not just from a wellbeing perspective to improve your grasp of authenticity, but to boost your chances of securing a cherished role or promotion, ensure the leadership training you take is not only about feeling authentic, but building a bridge to perceived authenticity, too.

Is Dr Leroy on to something, here?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “To us at the Institute, authentic leadership is about far more than the simple claim, ‘I’m being authentic.’ We break it down into component parts, the first of which is self-awareness. And yes, that is about knowing your own preferred styles of behaviour and motivations. But it’s also about understanding the various ways in which they may – and in fact do – impact upon and influence others. Within our dimension of authenticity, we also examine aspects such as how we relate to others, conversation, ethics and knowing your values. So it’s a complex, multifaceted subject area – and this research from Rotterdam certainly bears out that complexity.”

Cooper notes: “It is absolutely not enough to say, ‘I’m being true to myself.’ You have to understand not only what your truth really means, but how it’s being perceived – and whether, within the context of your organisation, there’s a genuine alignment between your own, authentic values and those you see in play around you in the workplace. And if there is any sort of disconnect, or lack of alignment, it’s not enough to merely dissociate yourself from the organisation’s values and carry on regardless – because there’s something inauthentic about working for an organisation that doesn’t allow you to be authentic.”

She adds: “For too long, there has been too much confusion about authenticity revolving around honesty, rather than much else. But we have to take a really close look at what it is that makes us authentic, and whether we are able to convey that, genuinely, in such a way that enables people to trust it. As with so much in the realm of authentic leadership, the fundamental, underpinning factor is trust.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on authenticity

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