Confused about “Being Authentic?” Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

Can you clear something up for me? I have been told by a former coach and others that I need to be more “authentic.” But I have also just received feedback in a performance review that I am too brusque, condescending, and cold. And if one more person tells me they are intimidated by me, I am going to scream.

True, I’m not warm and fuzzy—I never have been and never will be. I am extremely analytical and I do tend to cut to the chase whenever possible. I get an amazing amount of work done, I always hit my goals, and people come to me for answers. And yet, it appears that my direct reports and some peers want me to be nicer.

So which is it? Should I just go ahead and be authentic? Or should I try harder to be nice?

Confused and Fed Up

Dear Confused and Fed Up,

Oh, how I loathe the exhortation to be authentic. There are simply too many individual interpretations of what that word actually means.

All kinds of agendas are behind the call for authenticity, but the only one I agree with is that we all need to avoid trying to be something we’re not at the risk of being seen as fake or insincere.

I completely understand your confusion, so let’s clear this up: You should be as much yourself as possible—but the best possible version of it—and never totally yourself. And in your case, smile a lot more than is natural.

The key is to observe yourself. Reflect on what your true self really is and what behaviors are most natural to you. Then pay attention to what others are most comfortable with and regulate your natural behavior to the extent possible to increase their comfort level. This is called Emotional Intelligence—and the more you practice, the better you will get at it.

For a little more depth, I recommend a deep dive into understanding personality types so that you can figure out how you are different from other people, why it matters, and what to do about it. Here are a few resources:

David Keirsey on personality types

Linda Berens’ work on Temperament Theory

Jim Harden and Brad Dude’s What Makes You Tick

For example, I suspect you will find you have a dominant temperament that Keirsey calls Rational. It is driven by core psychological needs to achieve mastery, self-control, knowledge, and competence.

Your gifts of being an excellent systems thinker, a natural problem solver, and someone generally unaffected by regular conventions have a shadow side. People who are not like you (approximately 93 percent of the world) may perceive you as cold, unemotional, and condescending.

It would indeed be very inauthentic for you to try to be warm and fuzzy, but there is an argument to be made for being polite, which is simply a discipline, and kind, which may be more of a stretch and will require fairly intense self-regulation.

To avoid being fake, use your analytical skills to investigate each of your colleagues and pinpoint something to admire and thus a reason to respect them. Find something to care about for each person you work with by using your considerable intellect to put yourself in their shoes. And remember, it takes all kinds.

Do tell the truth as you see it—just not the way you are hearing it in your head. You will have to translate your thoughts; e.g.: “Good grief, that is the stupidest idea I have ever heard,” to something like “another idea might be to…”.

The good news is that you can leverage your drive for mastery and competence to become easier to get along with, without having to fundamentally change who you are—which is good, because that isn’t possible. The bad news is that it will require some effort on your part. And the other bad news is that we are all going to have to hear more about authenticity in the future.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

2 thoughts on “Confused about “Being Authentic?” Ask Madeleine

  1. I think in this case, the ask to be more “authentic” is an ask to be more vulnerable and sensitive to others vulnerability.

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  2. Great advice to Confused and Fed Up Mad. I once read “do unto others as they would like to be done unto.” Not always easy but helpful in building strong relationships.

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