Being Authentic: Why Dropping the Mask Matters More Than You Think.

Remember the last time you talked to someone who seemed friendly, polite, honest and just a really nice person, but somewhere deep inside you, something was off.  Something just didn’t seem right. Very deep inside, you are hearing alarm bells are going off.  What is that?   Why are you feeling that way?  What you are more than likely triggering, is your “authenticity alarm”. You are subconsciously picking up that this person is wearing a mask. They are not being authentic. There is much more here than meets the eye.

In this article, I will explore authenticity; what it is, how it works, why it matters and how to be more authentic in your interactions with others.

In his book Scary Close: Dropping the act and finding true intimacy, Donald Miller builds the case that we are not only more successful in the long term, but we also build stronger, more lasting relationships and are ultimately happier when we are truly authentic in our interactions with others.  He describes how true connection and relationships only happens when two people take the masks off, drops the pretense and connect at their true authentic core level.

From an authenticity perspective, we all consist of basically three layers.

Layer 1 is your true core self. Your authentic self. The way you were born, before “life” happened. No masks, no pretense, no spin, no manipulation. Just the real, true you.

Layer 2 (the next outer layer of the “onion”) is the stuff that happened to you between the time you were born and now. Good things, bad things, all the things that shaped the ‘You’ that you are now. Some of these may be obvious, some of these may not. Childhood traumas, embarrassments, abuse, betrayal … anything that causes you to build protection layers or masks.  Layer 2 is the reason for our next layer; layer 3.

Layer 3 is final layer is the far outer layer that the world sees. The ‘You’ that you want people to see. The mask(s) you wear to hide or protect your fragile inner (layer 1). The facade you put up to get where you want to go.

As with everything else in the world of humans, people differ. Some people have a thin second layer and as a result, a thin third layer. Their masks are fairly thin and somewhat transparent.  There isn’t a lot of pretenses. What you see is what you get.  Other people, on the other hand, have a really thick second layer and as such a really thick outer layer. These are people who, for a variety of reasons and life experiences, have built an impenetrable, armor-like mask.  When you interact with them, you just know that you are not interacting with the real person inside. You are talking to a mask.

You may be wondering what all this touchy-feely relationship stuff have to do with career or life success. The reality is that relationships have everything to do with success.  Your career (and life) success absolutely depends on your ability to build strong, trusting relationships with those around you; no matter which career you’re in. Unless you’re working in a job where there are no other humans, you will be working with people in some capacity or another. You will be interacting with your peers, your seniors, your subordinates or your customers. Your success is determined by your ability to build relationships with these people in ways that make them trust you, like you and want to work with you as opposed to against you. And the extent to which that happens is the extent to which they believe they can trust you.

Stephen M.R Covey’s book The Speed of Trust talks about the importance of trust in business and in life. In his book, he talks about how trust is built on credibility. Credibility, in turn, is built on four cores: Integrity, Intent, Capabilities and Results.  Integrity and Intent are both character related values.  Which means that you are trusted (or not) in large part based on how your character is perceived.  And even though Covey doesn’t specifically call this out, I believe that your character is assessed by how authentic others deem you to be.

Bottom line:  Career success requires strong relationships. Strong relationships require character and trust. Trust requires authenticity.

Let’s role play for a moment. Imagine you meet your new boss at work. He introduces himself to you and comes across as a really nice guy. He tells you how he values his employees and wants to empower them to be all they can be. He tells you about his open door policy and how much he looks forward to working with you. He tells you that he is here to help you be successful and to remove whatever roadblocks you encounter. All sounds really good, doesn’t it … maybe a little too good. Somewhere deep inside your gut, your “Spidey Senses” are tingling. Something just doesn’t sit right with you.  Something is just 2 degrees off from true north. This is your Authenticity Radar in action. Most of us have the ability to sense inauthenticity, even subconsciously. Most of the time, it is really hard to put into words, but you sense it. And it makes you uncomfortable. It makes you put your guard up and sleep with one eye open. Instead of an open, trusting, vulnerable relationship, we establish a surface level, superficial, ‘plastic’ relationship mask until we can prove or disprove our suspicion.  As a result,  productivity, creativity and ultimately organizational success suffers.

Now let’s have some fun; let’s reverse the roles. You’re the boss. You meet a new employee. What do you do and what do you say, so this does not happen to you? How do you ensure that you are as open and honest as possible so you build trust quickly and you start off on the right foot? Well, the easy cliche answer is “be yourself”, right? Sure. But what does that mean? Who am I really? Do I even know? And what if my “real self” is a not someone most people want to work for or even work with? I can’t let them see that, right?  How do I connect authentically with others?  Well, the bad news is that this is not something you fix overnight. I wish I could give you a magic authenticity pill, but the truth is that, like most other things, it takes hard work, commitment and time. And only if you are truly interested in creating real, lasting change, will you have success in improving.  It will not come easy, but the rewards will be well worth it.

Here are the 3 action steps you can take to get you started:

Step 1: Start with yourself

Step 2: Commit to the discovering the truth

Step 3: Be more vulnerable

Let’s take these one-by-one:

Step 1: Start with yourself:  If you’re going to improve your authenticity with others, you first have to be authentic with yourself. How real are you with yourself? Hiding behind a mask with others will most likely slow your career down, but kidding or lying to yourself will affect every single aspect of your life and set yourself up for some very bad outcomes. So take some time to examine your “self-talk”; the discussions you have with yourself in your brain. Evaluate your thoughts.  How honest are you with yourself? How much internal “spin” is going on in there? Hopefully, you have a very thin internal mask, but going forward, make the commitment to be brutally honest with yourself.

Step 2:  Commit to discovering the truth:  As with any other form of change, the first step is always recognizing that you have a problem. Recognizing and admitting that change needs to happen. Without this step, nothing happens. Commit to discovering your “authenticity score”. You do this by getting feedback. Feedback loops are the lifeblood of personal improvement. Especially since you are dealing with perception, you need to get external feedback.  A word of caution though, you are moving into vulnerable territory, so make sure you get feedback from people you trust and respect; people who will be honest and respectful with you. And then listen. Intently. And take the feedback to heart.

Step 3:  Be more vulnerable: There are two main reasons people choose to be inauthentic. 1) Self-protection / preservation and 2) the desire to succeed at any cost.  I won’t address the desire to succeed in this article. That’s a topic for a whole book in itself.  However,  the need for self-protection and preservation is something I do want to touch on briefly.  Many of us have scars; dealt to us by life and we believe we should keep those to ourselves, that showing imperfection is a sign of weakness. I want to encourage you to reject that notion to the strongest. Our scars make us human and sharing those with others builds trust, because we all have them and when you show me yours, I know you’re human like me … and I am much more likely to trust you when I know you’re human.

I read about a great illustration of this at the highest of corporate levels in Kristi Hedges’ book The Power of Presence.  Kristi is an executive coach and one of her niches is working with first time CEOs.  In her work with these leaders, especially in the relationship between them and their board of directors,  she clearly saw that CEOs who are always completely buttoned down and always seem perfect and flawless are trusted less by their board of directors than CEOs who make the occasional mistake, admits it and show their human side. These boards know that we are all human and we all make mistakes, and when they see no evidence of that, they start wondering what their CEO is hiding. If this is true for the top levels of corporate America, don’t you think it’s also true on all other levels of the workforce?

I’d like to re-iterate my word of caution. As you start to take the mask off and open your vulnerable self up, be careful. Don’t just pick anyone to start with.  The people you chose to start your authenticity journey with, should be folks who are themselves already at a high authenticity level. You do NOT want to expose your most vulnerable self to someone who is still wearing their own mask. Start small, start with the right person, and grow. Remember, real growth and real relationships only happens from layer 1 to layer 1. Opening up your authentic self to someone who is not real and truthful can have pretty disastrous consequences. And if that happens, the natural tendency will be to withdraw quickly and just re-enforce your mask or add another layer. But with the right partner, this is one of the best investments you can make in your personal growth.

I specifically call it an “investment”, because personal improvement is not a one-and-done type action. It is a slow, systematic iterative process.  Don’t expect overnight success. You will have to invest some time and energy to this. You didn’t build your mask overnight, and it won’t come off overnight. Expecting instant success just sets you up for disappointment. Keep working, keep tracking your progress through trusted feedback and celebrate your small victories. After the initial discomfort, it does become easier and easier and you will start to be more and more real.  As this happens, you will find that your relationships will deepen and strengthen. In addition, you will feel a liberating in your spirit that is truly amazing.

Some of you may decide that this is way too much work, way too risky and just not worth it. There are just way too many skeletons in the closet or way too much hurt and damage to reveal to the world. The mask needs to stay on. And that’s ok too. That’s a decision, and as long as it is a conscious decision, with the knowledge and understanding of the consequences, you are already living a more authentic life than 5 minutes ago. And maybe one day, who knows, you can take the next baby step. My hope is that you would try it. I promise you it’s worth it.


© 2017 Heinrich Stander ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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