Interested in starting a debate at the water cooler? If so, pose this question: is the authenticity movement in modern business just a scam? Oh, it is a loaded question. But it’s also a question worth talking about. With so much of the world striving to be genuinely authentic, it is very possible we are all being deceived.
Business expert and Bloomberg Opinion contributor Adrian Wooldridge recently wrote a piece on this very subject. His thesis was simple: modern authenticity is a scam. He didn’t just make the statement and ramble on without evidence. He went through his argument step-by-step and made a very compelling case. Others may not necessarily agree with his conclusions, but the article is still a good read.
The Fallacy of Branding
Without getting into too much detail, one of Woolridge’s arguments against the authenticity movement is found in comparing branding with HR messages. Branding is the strategy of convincing consumers to buy your products or services because they are superior to all others. Today, lifestyle branding is the big thing. What is lifestyle branding? It’s a company telling you that, “If you use our product or service, you will enjoy a better life.”
How is that being authentic? It’s not. In fact, lifestyle branding is the epitome of disingenuousness. But as Woolridge points out, the modern HR department practices something very similar. They tell candidates that, “If you come work for us, will help you be the best person you can be.” HR departments are applying the same lifestyle branding principles to recruitment.
The Proof Is in Acceptance
Woolridge does a masterful job picking apart the idea of authenticity using a variety of resources from literature to modern art. Toward the end of his piece, he brings up a salient point that runs the risk of offending. Simply put, the proof of genuine authenticity is in the acceptance of others.
Modern business says it wants employees to be truly authentic. Modern business claims that true authenticity makes for a more well-rounded company with a more inclusive way of thinking. Woolridge doesn’t let that slide. He holds those who take that view to task by posing a very simple question: do we want gun rights advocates posting pictures of their favorite weapons all over their cubicles?
Let’s be honest about it. In most workplaces, authenticity doesn’t apply to people whose ideas we don’t like. It is okay to be authentic as long as your authenticity doesn’t run counter to socially acceptable norms. But the minute it does, you must conform. You must trade your authenticity for someone else’s.
Being a Mirror
Plurawl is a LatinX apparel brand based in New York City. One of their best-selling items is a t-shirt that lists the most desirable qualities of authenticity. One of those qualities is being a mirror. As I understand it, me being a mirror helps other people see their authentic selves. I reflect to them those qualities that make for genuine authenticity.
If you subscribe to that thinking, how do you deal with people whose authentic selves you do not like? Do you demand that they conform? If they don’t conform, do you demand they be canceled?
My reading of the Woolridge piece leads me to the conclusion that genuine authenticity is actually impossible to achieve. We all need and want something in every situation in which we find ourselves. We will do what needs to be done to get it. That is a basic survival instinct. And as long as that’s the case, authenticity is, at best, a mirage.