Real or No Deal: The Necessity of Authenticity
Over the course of 2020, how often have you heard it said, “we’re all in this together”? What are the odds that when you open an email, it begins with the words, “In these unprecedented times”? How many ads have you seen reference COVID-19, bushfires, racial violence, or protests? I feel confident in guessing that your answers to these three questions are very often, very high, and most of them.
There is no doubt that this year has been filled with traumatic and divisive events that have disrupted our social fabric, and with greater ethical expectations from modern consumers, it is understandable why so many organisations have employed this kind of rhetoric. But herein lies the issue: too often it is abundantly clear that it is only rhetoric, perhaps sincere in opinion but absolutely devoid of any real contributory action.
Empty discourses from organisations whose primary interest is commercial are plain but palatable in limited doses; when experienced ad nauseam, they feel ignorant and unaware at best and actively destructive at worst.
The common thread of logic between all the companies that have shared these empty discourses is that saying nothing makes them appear complicit with the problem. They’re not completely wrong either; words have power and silence is violence. What they misunderstand is that words only have power because they can inspire or incite action, but no-one will be inspired by words they believe to be patently false or dishonest. The speaker needs to be authentic for the words to have any impact.
Consider Amazon. Earlier this year they released a commercial expressing their thanks for the dedication and perseverance their staff have demonstrated through COVID-19. At the same time, reports are coming out about how subpar the working conditions are in their warehouses and how their employees are underpaid and mistreated. The fair conclusion from these contradicting elements is that Amazon does not sufficiently appreciate their workforce or prioritise their needs.
Reality holds a greater sway over public opinion than rhetoric alone. There is a slight exception to this based on the size of an organisation: there is no expectation that a small café will be able to save the world, so it would be fine for them to share anti-racist sentiments, for instance, that display that they are allies without any corresponding actions. A large bank on the other hand holds enough power economically and politically that they are expected to support their words with action.
As an organisation, maintain authenticity (i.e. say what you mean, mean what you say, and then follow through on those words) and you will build trust with customers who align with your espoused ethics, which has overt positive correlations to organisational success. This is the value of authenticity at a macro level.
It is an equally valuable trait at an individual level as well. AIM’s 2020 Leadership Survey found authenticity to be the third most desired behaviour for management staff to demonstrate. As a driving force of generating respect and confidence between team members and their leaders, as well as between colleagues, there is a tangible need for people to be real and honest.
Whether you are guiding an organisation’s public face or trying to optimise the work dynamics of a team, recognising the irreplaceable value of authentic behaviour is a vital step.