Authenticity: Free to be me

AUTHENTICITY: Free to be me

 A 5 minute read…

A recent study found about 50% of people work in organizations where they feel the need to conform. [Gino, “Let your workers rebel” Harvard Business Review, 10/2016]. Only 50% of people feel encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work. Does that statistic surprise you? Which half do you belong to?

Jen’s Free to Be…You and Me Album

When I started writing this article about the PEAK Value of Authenticity, I reflected on what made me so conscious of the value of authentic expression throughout my life. I was reminded of something that was very influential to me growing up: Free to Be… You and Me, released the year I was born 45 years ago. I still have the album my parents bought for me as a kid. That music and movie told me I should be ME and whoever ME was, is good!


It turns out, that “being me” is a key in forming strong connections, which is vital to being a whole-hearted human. In her wildly popular 2014 TedX Talk, researcher/storyteller Brene Brown reveals that in order to create connection, we have to be willing to give up who we think we should be in order to be who we are.

In the corporate world, we tend to talk about connection in terms of engagement, and specifically often employee engagement. With higher employee engagement comes higher profitability [Gallup 2017].

So therefore, it seems to follow that:

Authenticity -> Connection -> Performance

In other words, if you want higher personal and organizational performance, it’s essential that you create a path for everyone, including you, to express their authentic selves.

That may be easier said than done though! It can take a lot of hard work, time, and involve a lot of discomfort and vulnerability, to get to an authentic place! And in our environment of quick-fixes and short-term profits being valued, it is hard to stay the course. At the end of the day though, the rewards go WAY beyond profits…to a real sense of purpose.

How hard can it be?

Free to Be…was an inspirational start for me, but that certainly was not the only factor that enabled me to be able to express my authentic self and pursue the dreams I had. I grew up in a middle-class house where both my parents encouraged me in math, science, art, writing, or anything I was interested in. I realize that the majority of people in the world didn’t have the abundance of support I had growing up as a foundation to thrive.

Jen and her mom Sheryl reading a Counting Book ~ 1975

And still, even with all of this healthy foundation, I have encountered significant challenges to my authentic self that have caused me set-backs in leading the life I want to lead. For those that don’t have the foundation I was privileged to have, the challenge could be almost insurmountable.

When I look at the times I’ve been at my personal and career best, it has been when I’ve been able to be comfortable in my own skin and feel valued for expressing my opinions and creativity. But what I’ve come to realize, is those situations came directly after times where my authenticity was compromised or directly challenged, and where I found my true self at what felt like rock bottom of my career or personal life. After going through a divorce, or the death of my mother, I rose out of those situations with more clarity about what I wanted in life.

I have always been a people-pleaser, and so the pull to conform to what I think will please a person or even a whole organization is strong. And for most people, fear of rejection, not fitting in, losing an opportunity or maybe even a job, is incredibly powerful, and causes people to conform. With evidence showing that only 10% of people feel like their employers actively encourage non-conformity [Gino, 2016], there isn’t a lot of support for people to overcome those fears.

One of my most challenging roles was as Intel IT’s Chief of Staff. There was tremendous pressure to conform to expectations others placed on me for the role. Coming out of that role, I felt more determined to express my own opinions and become my own leader in my own ways.

So, as we are building The PEAK Fleet, helping other entrepreneurs build their businesses, or helping established organizations improve their cultures, I have thought a lot about what types of environments are needed to cultivate authentic expression. The evidence is strong as to WHY being authentic and creating authentic environments is so valuable, but getting to HOW and actually doing it is more challenging.

Becoming authentic:

First of all, we can’t confuse authenticity with comfort. Avoiding discomfort under the guise of “being yourself” is a cop out. You can be uncomfortable and authentically you at the same time…and push yourself to grow. For example, this week I attended some Design Week Portland events requiring a lot of networking with strangers. Not my favorite thing to do and I usually never feel comfortable mixing in a crowded room of strangers. But because networking is crucial to building a start-up, I make myself do it! One man I met (who happened to have a psychology background), noted that I looked like I don’t like these events, so I guess I know I was being authentic AND uncomfortable at the same time!

Here are some suggestions for growing your authentic self:

  • Be very present and self-aware
  • Become comfortable with vulnerability.
  • Notice when inauthenticity creeps in
  • Focus on and share your passions

Being present has benefits way beyond living authentically. This practice is important for observing who you are in different situations and becoming aware of your emotions and reactions to various circumstances. What are you like when you are being observed versus alone? When do you feel you are able to be the most open and honest?

Vulnerability is another one of those attributes of the “whole-hearted” that Brown’s research revealed. When you become comfortable with vulnerability, by sharing a struggle or failure with your team, for example, you give people a closer glimpse of who you really are through adversity. When you push past the fear of being rejected for that failure, you may gain more pure connections with people.

You know the feeling when inauthenticity creeps in. It might be a pang in your stomach, or a little uncontrolled giggle, but the pressure to not just be you is evident when you are being present. As that “alternative you” surfaces, take a deep breath and focus on being vulnerable and staying true to you. I don’t believe this means saying whatever comes to mind without consideration of others. It will take thoughtful practice to respond authentically rather than to react reflexively, using empathy to understand the situation and gather alternative perspectives. [My partner Brian Stinson wrote an excellent article on EMPATHY that suggest techniques for increasing your ability to relate]

Finally, when you seek out those things in life that you are passionate about, not only will you find more fulfillment and purpose, but you will find your authentic self. Think about those times when you talk about the things you really love, whether a place to visit, a hobby, or a job you have. For example, I make no apologies for the fact that I love both cats and goats. Sharing memes and pictures I’ve taken has become a signature that people either love or loathe. As evidenced by things people share on my Facebook wall, they know if it’s about cats or goats, it’s for me!

Practicing Authenticity

Some authors have suggested that the mere act of trying to be authentic makes you inauthentic, a poseur. It’s the “paradox” of authenticity. I think in this fast-paced world of fake news and constantly changing fads, it can be a challenge to know who you really are and own it. Only 50% of people feel authentic at work? We can do better! Once you have a good sense of your authentic self, you will be equipped to tackle the next challenges: Authentic Leadership and Creating an Authentic Organization. These are both significant and important topics I’ll tackle in future articles. I’ve “goat” you covered ;).




Jen Coyne

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