Yet another nail in the coffin of authenticity. Have you ever heard of the ideomotor effect? Studies show that our physical behaviour can impact our beliefs, feelings and emotions, through a mechanism known as priming.
Studies have demonstrated that when you smile, you are more likely to be amused. When you walk slowly, you are more likely to associate certain words with old age, than if you walk quickly. Nodding while listening to a message increases your likelihood of agreeing with the message, as compared to shaking your head from side to side (a gesture “no”). (See Daniel Kahaneman’s new book Thinking, Fast and Slow for a clear, concise description of these studies).
What does this have to do with authenticity? Authenticity tends to be defined as our need to express our inner beliefs, values and personal traits to the outside world. That is, that our inside matches our outside. This assumes firstly that we have enough self-awareness to know our beliefs, values and traits. A second assumption is that our beliefs are what drives our behaviours. That is that our authenticity comes from within.
What if our behaviours drive our feelings? In other words, if we act confidently, we start to believe that we are confident. By a strict definition of authenticity, we are no longer being “authentic”. Yet over time, confident behaviour becomes authentic.
So why does this even matter in the world of leadership? The pursuit of “authenticity” might be misguided, for a couple of reasons. First, expressing negative emotions or beliefs might be counter productive in a leadership situation. For example, if a leader is despondent about the future of the company, authenticity suggests that they should express this doubt to their followers. Since we know that emotions are contagious, this feeling may spread through the organization. No exactly a recipe for a solution to a complex problem.
Secondly, the concept of authenticity assumes that all beliefs are equally valid. As I noted in my post “Hitler was authentic“, that assumption is patently false. According to psychologists and political scientists, we start with beliefs and then search for evidence to support those beliefs, no matter how crazy. The mere fact of repetition reinforces those beliefs.
Don’t get me wrong. It is important to have an open conversation in organizations about shared values and beliefs. It’s important to uncover unstated assumptions about how business and the world work. But when everyone has a shared set of values that are out of whack, as the financial services industry did in the 2000s, (making money for me is more important than the individuals being ripped off), you just end up with a big disaster. Those values were authentic, public and shared by the entire industry. However, they were a disaster for most developed economies. Authenticity is not a panacea for ethical violations, or for leadership.