Can You Put Your Finger On Authenticity?

AuthenticityIt sounds so simple, doesn’t it: If you want to be successful at collaboration / blogging / your job / community building / storytelling / you-name-it, then you have to come across authentic. Marginal note: for many people and businesses authenticity is quite difficult to grasp. It’s a concept that’s often discussed, but it remains hard to put your finger on it.

Personally, I don’t find much more clarity in the Wiktionary’s explanation, since there the term is further split into two. On the one hand, someone or something is authentic when they’re “genuine or not corrupted from the original”. On the other hand, authenticity means “truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, and intentions” (the list!).

The original person

In the case of a person, the “original” is not too hard to discover – although I can imagine some people could do with some coaching when it comes to revealing their “original” self. Every person is unique, but to remain “genuine or not corrupted from the original” as a human being means staying really true to yourself. How often, however, do you come across someone who is totally lost in something or another? Doesn’t life revolve around the question “Who am I?” anyway?

Ok, back to the point: When you may represent yourself, it is basically possible to come across authentic. But what about a company’s authenticity? What is the original of an organization? The people who started the company and who created a corporate culture? Or is the way things are done now more significant?

The original company

Finding and carrying out your own authenticity is one thing, but to do so for a company or a brand turns out to be quite a challenge. There’s a reason why Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones start with “Let People Be Themselves” when they describe how to create the best workplace on earth (following six virtues).

I don’t know whether Dove internally follows any of Goffee and Jones’ virtues, but to the outside world – specifically the consumer – this company’s masters the authenticity-trick quite well. In a sequel to 2008’s “Real Beauty” campaign, Dove has now launched the “See How Beautiful You Really Are” campaign. In it, a number of women describe their appearance to a FBI trained forensic artist who did not see the women (and vice versa). Afterwards, the appearance of these women was also described to this forensic artist by others. Guess who gave the best (most authentic) description…

The disadvantages of the bandwagon effect

The pressure of being authentic increases because of the above described list of conditions. Those conditions are tough to be met for both people and businesses. Think about it, someone who doesn’t come across with “truthfulness of (…) sincerity, and intentions” – who seems to have a hidden agenda – will not get your trust easily. The same is true for a company or brand that does not comply with what they promise in their marketing and service statements. You may remember United Breaks Guitars, the song from a band whose instruments were destroyed by the luggage handling of United Airlines. As their complaints were not taken seriously, the band wrote a song that forced United to its knees. Thanks to that debacle, no airline gets away anymore with promising to take good care of the passengers’ luggage only to lose or break it. Fortunately, companies get help from Dave Carroll (the guy who owned the guitar) nowadays. For people, an alternative to the polygraph has been created: A suit that literally becomes transparent when the owner’s heart starts beating faster (because of a lie). Companies can no longer continue without (a form of) authenticity. You could say that it’s becoming a dress code for all companies.

The King’s New Clothes

A current example of the struggle with authenticity at work, can be found in the story of our new king [NL]. As the various interviews and portraits during his (adult) life show, he does his best to be a king of the ordinary people to be as much as possible, but – at the same time – he struggles with the amount of privacy that he and his family have to give up for it. It can be concluded that this struggle is at the expense of his authenticity …

I rest my case

However, you may as well forget everything I have written down above, because according to Maarten Doorman [NL] we shouldn’t be thinking about it (too much). Only then authenticity will appear. In his book Rousseau and I, he aims to “show that the belief in authenticity is false” [translation PS]. In this book, Doorman explains that our present desire for authenticity has arisen from the work of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the romantic ideas of the sixties. With that statement Doorman undermines the idea that authenticity is authentic: Rousseau and the hippies have made a concept of it and that is what we follow now.

Doorman’s view reminds me of science’s ongoing issue: When one examines something it often changes (its behavior) because it’s being examined. Being authentic thus fails when you try too hard. I think that’s precisely what makes the concept of authenticity so interesting and, therefore, I also agree with Doorman. Authenticity is hard to grasp and will always remain so, because once you have put your finger on it, it is no longer authentic.


A similar blog post was also published on [NL]

I started blogging mainly because of my interest in organizational cultures and (online) communications. Over the years it has become my passion to help professionals and entrepreneurs build their dreams, accelerate their results, and create richer, more miraculous lives.
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