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When Authenticity Becomes Unprofessional

For some years now, the value of the authentic has skyrocketed – especially in the personal development scene. Everywhere we look, there is a hunger for all that is genuine and unadulterated. People want language that expresses sincerity, beliefs that have personal meaning and experiences that make us feel happy.

Without a doubt, authenticity is an admirable quality and showing one's true self can be liberating.

However, few things are as overrated as authenticity.

To better equip you to stay true to yourself, let's take a look at why it's important to put authenticity into perspective and what steps you can take to ensure your actions remain professional.

We are what we repeatedly do

As a communication trainer, my main task is primarily to support people in making their communicative behaviour more effective. I make existing communication patterns visible and offer alternative behavioural solutions. If one has not been successful with one's usual behaviour so far, it seems reasonable to simply try something new. But this is precisely what many of us have a hard time doing. Because one of the most frequent objections I am confronted with in this endeavour is the claim to authenticity.

It is quite understandable that some people take a defensive stance when they are asked to try out a behaviour that is so different from what they have known so far. After all, communication is above all a habitual reflex. And we know from research that nothing defines our self-perception of our own identity as strongly as our socialised and trained habits. This means that we are above all what we regularly do. And this includes, our ritualised way of speaking. From this point of view, it is hardly surprising that we often find it difficult to adopt a new behaviour. It simply feels unfamiliar. Therefore, we immediately reject it. And even though this defence mechanism may be understandable to a certain extent, this way of thinking is still very problematic and of little help. Just because a certain way of communicating is easy for me (because I am used to it), that does not mean that this behaviour is also meaningful and purposeful in a given situation – despite all the supposed authenticity.

Claiming authenticity is crisis management

«Like the rest of the world, I like to talk about authenticity and yet I don't know what authenticity is any more than the rest of the world does.» Prof. Dr. Gerhard Härle

If you ask yourself what authenticity is, you will hear different explanations. I offer two perspectives as answers.

The simple answer: authenticity is being true to yourself and accepting your own unique qualities, values, beliefs and experiences. It is an important part of self-expression and the development of one's potential. Authenticity is also important in building meaningful relationships with others, as it allows us to be honest and open with ourselves without fear of judgement or criticism. It allows us to live life on our own terms without feeling we have to conform to expectations or social norms.

It is the latter that is problematic.

Which leads us to the second, somewhat more difficult answer, which begins with a question: When does the issue of authenticity in our everyday lives come to the fore? After all, most time in our lives we do not require to think about the question of authenticity – we simply go about our daily rituals without questioning what lies behind it. We only do so when we are faced with a problem that requires a change in behaviour. Put another way: The claim to authenticity is always accompanied by a crisis.

How should we understand this?

In our context, the concept of authenticity can switch between three meanings – depending on the use of the verb:

to be authentic (identity by habit),

to speak or act authentically (behaviour through habit)

and to feel authentically (perception of the habitual).

It is this ambiguity that makes the term so versatile. Above all, the term serves as a convenient «joker» in a crisis, which one can pull out of one's sleeve at any time to justify things one is otherwise unable to explain. In other words, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation of uncertainty, where we are ignorantly struggling for answers (hence: crisis). Authenticity therefore often functions as a protective shield. It provides a retreat that allows us to emotionally compensate for personal misbehaviour and inadequacies. And most often such a crisis arises in conflict with other people.

What is the problem with authenticity?

There are several problems in connection with authenticity.

  • First, there is the challenge of finding a balance between being true to oneself and being considerate of others. Being authentic can mean expressing opinions and feelings that do not match those of others. This can inevitably lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

  • A second problem is that some people find it difficult to be authentic because they fear rejection or condemnation from others if they show their «true colours».

  • A third, very annoying inconvenience with authenticity is that it is often misunderstood as carte blanche to say or do anything one wants without regard to the impact on others. The motto is: I am who I am – if you don't like it, get lost.

  • A fourth problem is the exact opposite. Namely, people who simply find it difficult to understand and express their true self, which automatically leads to a lack of authenticity – for which there can be various reasons, e.g. past traumas, social pressure or a lack of self-confidence.

  • And a fifth, more common than average problem is that some people do not display the necessary behaviour to defend and assert themselves in difficult situations. This is especially true for many women when they feel cornered in a meeting by typical male behaviour – for example, constant interruptions or verbal attacks. In such cases, there is often a tendency on the part of women to meet rudeness with politeness. The unfair behaviour is silently accepted because it feels far removed from their values of authenticity. But by doing so, one only allows oneself to be victimised, which brings nothing but misery without any benefit. What follows instead is the usual phrase that one does not need to stoop to such a «low level». So one prefers to make a fist in the sack, let everything pass silently over one's head and supposedly believes that one is thereby behaving ethically in the sense of personal authenticity (crisis!). Unfortunately, such an attitude does not help anyone – least of all the person concerned. It would be much more appropriate and professional to behave in the opposite way: to demand politeness by being impolite oneself. Otherwise, one has to ask oneself in what does the value of politeness consist?

Authenticity alone will not get us very far. It is not difficult to see how our claim to authenticity creates many blind spots that can manifest themselves in many different forms. The consequences are rigid views and inflexible behaviour. But if we want to find our place in society, it takes much more to live a truly «authentic» life. It takes integrity.

From authentic self-presentation to role model of integrity

We need to be aware of this difference: When you are authentic, you are honest with yourself and others about who you are, what you believe in and what you stand for. This helps people to trust you and feel comfortable around you. However, being authentic does not mean that you should always say or do what you feel like or feels authentic to you. This is where integrity comes into play. Integrity is about ensuring that your actions are in line with your values and principles. It is about being true to your word and being accountable for your actions. Integrity in this case means strictly adhering to a set of moral standards that guide your role behaviour in a particular context and group of people.

Authenticity, then, is more concerned with the question of self – integrity, on the other hand, with understanding the expectations of others and living up to them. Or to put it another way: The former focuses on personal desires, the latter on the honest and ethical fulfilment of duties that we perform through our roles.

And in any culture, living one's life according to the assigned roles is crucial. Living authentically means remaining loyal and true to ourselves, but taking on a role requires us to do the right thing even when no one is watching. Only when these two parts – authenticity and integrity – come together in harmony does an individual emerge, an indivisible wholeness whose actions speak louder than words.

6 reasons why authenticity without integrity is unprofessional

  1. Authenticity without integrity does not lead to responsible decisions Without integrity, it is easy for a person to make decisions without considering the consequences of their actions or the potential impact on others. Integrity requires us to weigh the consequences of our decisions, consider the impact on others and take responsibility for the results. With integrity as a foundation, we can be sure that our actions are consistent with our values and true intentions.

  2. Authenticity can be perceived as selfish or egocentric A person can be authentic in their behaviour or decisions but have no regard for others and their feelings. However, when integrity is combined with authenticity, it leads to a more balanced approach to decision-making. One takes into consideration others, not just one's own needs and desires. This ensures that authenticity does not come across as selfish, but shows a sincere desire to act in the best interests of all. With this kind of consideration, a person can be authentic and generous at the same time.

  3. Authenticity without integrity can lead to role confusion When your behaviour and decisions are based on a foundation of integrity, it sends an unmistakable message to those around you: you can be trusted. This trust not only creates clarity in any professional environment, but also builds relationships that foster better understanding between colleagues and lead everyone to more successful outcomes. Being consistent with your values is the key to bringing authenticity to any role or professional position – so that others know they can rely on you no matter what challenges arise.

  4. Authenticity without integrity limits growth opportunities for others Authenticity can create a false sense of security and trust. It allows people to be dishonest with themselves and those around them, which ultimately leads to a lack of understanding and communication. Without the ability to recognise and address problems openly, emotional intelligence is thrown out the window and relationships suffer. Authenticity without integrity leads to superficial understanding and a decline in trust, which ultimately limits opportunities for growth for others.

  5. Authenticity without integrity can lead to a sense of entitlement and complacency When authenticity lacks integrity, individuals can become too comfortable in their role and believe that they deserve special treatment. If an individual does not consider their values or intentions when making decisions, they can easily feel entitled to certain privileges that are baseless. This can lead to a sense of complacency as the individual is unwilling to make the necessary effort to move things forward or take on extra responsibilities.

  6. Authenticity without integrity can lead to a lack of credibility among certain groups When it comes to presenting oneself to the outside world, authenticity without integrity can lead to mistrust. Without a strong sense of morality, any message or action is most likely to be received with scepticism. Furthermore, a lack of confidence in one's words or actions can easily have a damaging domino effect on the overall credibility of the group in question. Unscrupulous behaviour and false promises can further erode the reputation of trustworthiness and lead to a lack of trust among those who wish to work with or follow the person or organisation in question. Ultimately, authenticity without integrity is not only off-putting, but has the potential to undermine relationships and damage reputations. Therefore, it is essential to maintain integrity in all communications and business relationships, regardless of the situation or context. This will build trust and credibility with the public, clients and colleagues.

The more integrity in the role behaviour, the more authentic the effect.

Authenticity can take many forms and is often seen as something that comes from a place of honesty, free from fakery or exaggeration. It is generally seen as something that just «happens» and therefore seems «natural», like an organic event. However, every professional actor knows that if he wants to do a good job, his role must be played as authentically as possible. As audience, this role only seems credible to us if we can also directly experience this authenticity.

The idea that authenticity is something staged may irritate some people: How can something be real if it was deliberately created for a specific purpose? However, this problem only arises for those who claim that authenticity is something that actually exists. Gerhard Härle's statement takes on a very special meaning here because it sums up the whole discussion about authenticity in one sentence:

«Authenticity does not exist - but it can occur.»

The mere fact that authenticity can be staged should be proof enough that it does not necessarily have to do with «personal truthfulness«, but rather with credible behaviour that is linked to expectations of a role. For how else would we be able to appreciate an acting performance at all? How do you measure such a judgement?

The people you come into contact with do not necessarily know whether what they see in you is authentic or not, and that is precisely why stagings make such a special impression on us. If these stagings are somewhat successful, they become an authentic event. No one can demand more authenticity than that.

The eternal discussion about what authenticity ultimately is and how it works seems to me to be of little help in practical life. However, if one is prepared to drop the claim to authenticity to some extent and to recognise how it can be generated through careful construction, then one has a powerful tool in one's hand to discover oneself again and again in new ways in one's ever-changing environment.

Once you understand how best to create an experience that feels truly genuine and authentic, this can be invaluable for those people who want to achieve maximum impact for their message.


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