The Authenticity Trap
Tom Salinsky writes...
As someone once said “Sincerity is everything – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” We are rightly suspicious of people whom we think might be trying to influence us, manipulate us, trick us into making poor decisions. We don’t like being sold to, handled or patronised. And we’re very quick to reject people whom we think aren’t being straight with us. The question of course is how do we know? Study after study has demonstrated that, regardless of their expectations, almost nobody can do better than chance at spotting a liar. And yet even being confronted with this information doesn’t dent our confidence that on this occasion we are dead right – we are being lied to or mislead and we won’t stand for it.
This creates a conflict in the work that I do, helping people communicate better in all sorts of situations from drinks receptions where one is supposed to “network” to presenting key data at a large symposium, to negotiating a better deal one-on-one in a private space. All of these are pressure situations, and in pressure situations, people are rarely at their best. And so the advice to “be yourself”, “just be natural” or “be authentic” is unlikely to be helpful. If the pressure provided by the context is going to naturally generate authentic behaviour which will put off potential clients, render your key data dull or unintelligible, or communicate to the other party that you are a pushover, then clearly this must be changed.
But the idea of consciously changing your behaviour, the concept of learning new ways of interacting and of dealing with pressure, strikes some people as wrong-headed or even impossible. You won’t get anyway if you’re faking it. You will be found out. I can always tell when someone is faking it. My usual response to this is – you can always tell? Really? How do you know? To me it’s like saying “I’ve never seen a convincing wig.” This is a very difficult statement to substantiate – maybe everyone you’ve ever meet has been wearing a wig, but they’ve all been amazingly successful ones.
If the advice I give is followed clumsily then it is likely that people will find you out. Advice I don’t give but others do is to get rapport with someone by mirroring their body language. One of the reasons I don’t suggest this is not because it won’t work (it might, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed to) but rather because it’s far too easy for you to be spotted doing this, and then you just seem creepy or deranged. But if you follow some of the tips that I give to subtly alter the way that you behave, rather than trying to totally reinvent yourself, it’s unlikely that anyone will suddenly cry “j’accuse!” and denounce you as a fraud, because people are far, far worse at spotting fakes than they imagine.
But I also reject the idea that being “your authentic self” is always and necessarily a benefit. To be sure, I think cultivating an elaborately distinctive persona for the workplace, which is quite unlike your social self is an foolish, not to say exhausting, prospect, but that doesn’t mean that your gut reaction to each situation should always be allowed to rule the day. If a client is making unreasonable demands, treating me rudely or failing to give me the information that I need to plan the session for them, it doesn’t benefit me if I react with anger or frustration. And it doesn’t benefit the client either! It’s very unlikely that they are hoping to anger or frustrate me – this is an unintended consequence of them being short of time, or distracted by other matters, or not understanding the difference between what I have offered and what they are asking for. If I can summon up some kindness but also be clear about what I need, then we will both be able to make the right decisions.
Same goes for managers talking to their teams, buyers talking to suppliers, and parents talking to their children. We don’t want or need your negative emotions, no matter how authentic they are, any more than passengers on an airline need a pilot who authentically comes over then intercom to say “ladies and gentlemen – I have never seen readings like this before. I have no idea what is happening to this plane.”