What is authenticity anyway?
Ritu Bhasin’s new book, The Authenticity Principle, explores how each of us can resist the push to conform, embrace who we are—including our differences, and take steps to transform our lives by finding more moments of authenticity in how we live, work, and lead. We sat down with Ritu to talk about how the concept of “authenticity” is connected to inclusion and privilege.
In The Authenticity Principle, you talk about authenticity being the “antidote to exclusion.” What do you mean by this?
Exclusion is rooted in the refusal to accept, or even to see, others’ differences. It prevents us from bringing our differences to carry in our interactions, and instead causes us to change or mask who we are and focus instead being the same. Whatever our differences are—be it gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or class background—we learn to push down or hide what makes us different in order to survive, fit in, or succeed.
On the other hand, inclusion is all about embracing differences—we signal, “I see you for what makes you different, and I welcome that,” which means embracing authenticity. You simply can’t have inclusion without authenticity!
In the book, I explain that in inclusive cultures and environments, each of us is encouraged to be who we truly are as much as possible. Our differences are seen as strengths. And our inclusion of differences leads to empowerment, creativity, innovation, and ultimately happiness. But we have hard work to do, individually and collectively, before this can be possible in our society as a whole.
Why do you say that being authentic is a privilege?
Frankly, it’s more difficult for some of us to be authentic than it is for others. While each of us has choices, for some the ability to exercise choice is much more difficult because of economic, familial, cultural, religious, personal safety, or other reasons.
For example, on a personal note, many years ago I had the realization that I was very unhappy in my “successful” career on Bay Street because I was being pushed to conform and mask who I was, which ultimately led me to leave my job to start my own business. Now, as a successful entrepreneur running my own business, I’m able to be as authentic as possible every day, because I set the rules. This is privilege. Yes, it was incredibly hard work for me to get here, but someone who wants to leave their job but is financially struggling with multiple dependents may not be able to do this.
Another example of privilege is in the workplace, where we know from workplace research that people from underrepresented communities—people of colour, women, people from LGBTQ communities, persons with disabilities, religious minorities, and others—feel more pressure to change and hide aspects of their authentic selves at work.
I can tell you that, as a woman of colour, I often felt it was very hard to reveal aspects of my Punjabi culture in my corporate job, and, to be candid, I was rewarded for not doing so. When you feel safe to openly share who you are and what makes you different at work, you’re experiencing privilege – whether it’s earned or unearned.
Because the degree to which we can be our authentic selves depends on our privilege, it’s important to be mindful not to negatively judge those who aren’t able to live as authentically as they might want to. And for those of us who have more power and privilege, I think it’s important that we help to create a society where as many of us as possible can live authentically. In other words, we should fight for authenticity and inclusion for all.
What are some practical tips you can offer for those of us who want to live authentically?
The key starting point is self-reflection. You can’t change your life until you know who you are and understand your values, wants, needs, preferences, strengths, and challenges. The process of self-reflection will also help to reveal which aspects of your authentic self you’re rejecting and what you’re embracing.
Once you’ve begun to know and embrace who you are on a deeper level—and especially what makes you different—you can use my Three Selves framework (outlined in the book) as a gauge for when to be authentic and when to adapt your behavior.
The Three Selves framework asks us to look closely at where and when we are altering our behaviour, and to ask ourselves how that feels. It also provides some strategic ways that we can learn to be authentic more often, and conform less often, while still achieving the success and belonging we desire in the world.
Authenticity is a journey, and a daily practice. My best advice is to start now – it will profoundly change your life!
Ritu Bhasin is an award-winning expert in diversity and leadership development, the President of bhasin consulting inc.—a leading diversity and inclusion-focused consulting firm, and the author of The Authenticity Principle: Resist Conformity, Embrace Differences, and Transform How You Live, Work, and Lead. Inspired by her own journey to overcome racist childhood bullying, Bhasin teaches globally on how to live, work, and lead in an empowered and inclusive way.