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Authentic behavior in organizations: On being true to yourself Published: Sunday, May 9, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

In a society that has changed significantly over the past decades, newer generations experience increasing difficulties in accepting more traditional institutionalized frames of reference. In the past decade there has been an intense concern about the way organizations are managed and led. Such consternation is partly due to greater public scrutiny and probity about the direction, management, and structures of organizations. There is an entrenched public perception that the leadership rhetoric does not match workplace reality and therefore a great deal of cynicism and disdain about organizational leaders prevails. Authenticity as a management-tool has become especially relevant.

 People in organizations are in search of authentic leaders and colleagues. When consulting the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the denotation "authentic" is an adjective with the connotation of (a) "worthy of acceptance or belief: conforming to an original" (b) "not false or imitation: real and actual" and (c) "true to one's own personality, spirit, or character". Especially this last connotation of being true to you stands central in this article.

  Of particular importance is the psychological view on authenticity. Some of the founders of modern day psychology such as Carl Rogers (1959, 1963) and Maslow (1968, 1971) have tried to identify what makes self- actualized or authentic individuals: in tune with their basic nature and able to clearly and accurately see themselves and their lives, unfettered by others' expectations for them allowing to make more personal choices. Note the reference to the self (personal choice), the other (expectation of others) and the ideal (basic nature). As such, much of the research toward authenticity lies in the intersection between cognitive (self), social (other) and positive psychology (ideal).

 Research on identity recognizes the different dimensions of actual self, ought self and ideal self (Higgins, 1987). Where the "actual self" represents personal reflections of what someone really is, the "ought self" represents a socially desirable image of the self. The ideal self represents a preferred ideal state. Together the interplay between these dimensions interprets and organizes intra-and interpersonal actions and experiences, provides the motivation plans, rules and scripts for behavior and adjusts in response to changes in the social and physical environment. A personal view on identity is subjectively distorted in that asking individuals their personal identity, we evoke cognitive schematics of ideal - (who we or others want us to be) rather than actual selves (who we are). Personal views on identity are therefore always biased toward a certain ideal. Therefore, Brewer and Gardner (1996) suggest personal, relational as well as collective levels of self-definition.

 Authentic leaders develop self- awareness from their experiences and equally act on that awareness by practicing values and principles (sometimes at substantial risk to themselves). This requires the courage and honesty to open up and examine their experiences. As they do so, leaders become more humane and willing to be vulnerable. As such authenticity is not related to manipulation as an 'act'.  These leaders grow to be aware of what intrinsically and extrinsically motivate their behavior. This balanced perspective leads to a sense of fulfillment in their work that allows them to stay grounded through stressful experiences. As such, leaders are advised to go beyond mere consistency and try to embody the values they cherish.

Authentic leaders are deeply aware of how they think and behave, perceived by others as being aware of their own and others' values/moral perspective, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient and high on moral character". I believe these notions reflect the core principles of authentic functioning as a balanced processing of information through subsequently feeling, knowing and acting authentically.

 Authentic functioning can best be summarized as a balanced processing of, subsequently, feeling (mindful), knowing (awareness) and acting (transparency) authentically: In being true to ourselves, we use our feelings to tell us what we need to know to be coherent in how act.  This cycle can be repeated continuously through which we gradually discard defensive processes and evolve toward an optimal equilibrium in differing perceptions of authenticity. Furthermore, this optimal equilibrium is contingent on changing circumstances that impose new perceptions of authenticity from the self, the other and the ideal.

 Therefore authenticity should not be seen as a dispositional trait but as a state that assesses the efforts of people to integrate themselves in their (changing) environment. There is an apparent logic behind the statement of being true yourself: for many it may seem the most straightforward way to ensure personal happiness. Especially in a rapidly changing environment, the reassuring knowledge that we remain authentic helps us cope with daily stressors. Therefore organizations may benefit to empower authenticity, under the explicit restraint that they themselves remain authentic to their economic, environmental and social responsibilities.

 Authentic leadership is a conscious commitment to core, enduring values. It is nurtured and sustained by compassion, honesty and dignity in leadership behavior and interpersonal relationship. Only by creating a caring, concerned and compassionate environment in organizations can leaders provide the ignition and compression for quality behavior and learning, and the necessary stretch for improvement and innovation.


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