Posturing vs. authenticity in our work lives

If you’ve spent a lot of time in meetings, seminars, conferences, and other such gatherings that are part of our information society, then you’ve probably encountered the contrasts between posturing and authenticity. I’d like to explore this for a few minutes.

This week I’m reflecting upon the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network and hosted by Columbia University in New York City last Thursday and Friday. Participating in this workshop has become a more-or-less annual ritual for me, and one of the most meaningful. It’s a global gathering of scholars, practitioners, activists, and students committed to advancing human dignity. I like these folks a lot; simply being around them makes me a better person.

One of the workshop’s most endearing aspects is the quality of authenticity that participants bring to it. There is something very real about this gathering. There’s more genuine exchange and a lot less posturing over the course of this two-day event than you’ll find at many programs heavily populated by academics and professionals.

What do I mean by posturing? In the context of meetings and conferences, posturing is the practice of saying “learned” things or raising “clever” questions primarily to make an impression, rather than to enrich a discussion. The two fields I am most familiar with, academe and law, are positively rife with posturing.

Yup, I’ve engaged in posturing, especially as a younger professor. But thankfully, especially during the past decade, I feel like I’ve discovered my authentic voice. In this mode, I’m in alignment with my values and consequently much less prone to getting caught up in superficial attempts to manage impressions.

The authenticity vs. posturing question brings up deeper, important questions about how we reach that place of alignment and present ourselves to our colleagues and co-workers: What is one’s natural persona in a vocational or professional setting? How are we authentic or not in such settings? What’s the difference between becoming real versus constructing an artificial self?

Especially when we’re new to a given field or group of people, we tend to want to make a good impression. That’s natural. Especially as neophytes, we may engage in posturing as a mask for feeling unsure of ourselves or to mold ourselves to external expectations. That’s natural, too. But what happens when managing impressions becomes the end game, rather than creating and discovering our more authentic, substantive groove? Evolving away from the former and toward the latter is a key part of our growth and development, on the job and elsewhere.

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3 responses

  1. I’m not sure what all has to happen for people to get to the place you are at now, i.e., being authentic vs. posturing. Perhaps that journey is different for different people. For most of us, we do what we know until something or some things happen that teach us otherwise. I’ve little doubt that most people even are aware that what they are doing is posturing. Unfortunately, there is much more in the world that reinforces our detachment from authenticity than our growing towards it or being in it.

    The workplace, it seems to me, is one of the most dangerous places to be authentic. I often see people rewarded for posturing. Very, very seldom can I say the same for someone showing or expressing authenticity. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.

    Your column yesterday talked about emotional detachment in a dysfunctional workplace. I’m not sure what place emotional detachment has when being authentic. I do believe dysfunctional workplaces take their toll – even when one can do a good job of trying to stay out of the fray, emotionally or otherwise.

    I think you are fortunate to be able to be in the position you are in now. Truly fortunate.

    • Thank you for your good comments. My thoughts on this are still in development, but I’m referring to authenticity as an internal place as well as outward behavior. In that way, for example, emotional detachment can be a much more authentic response to a bad work environment than twisting one’s self out of shape to play an unpleasant game.

      Alas, I agree that posturing is rewarded more than authenticity in many workplaces and occupations. Speaking personally, I know that I’ve implicitly passed on certain opportunities for conventional advancement or recognition, and felt dismissed by some, by not playing the posturing game. I know I’m not alone in that. The human dignity workshop I wrote about was filled with people who have made similar choices. But it’s a tradeoff that feels, well, authentic.🙂

  2. DR stated it perfectly. Healthly environments in nursing are not to be found. My experience in nursing has been if you keep your mouth shut you will be rewarded.

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