I was challenged when leading a seminar on culture last week. I was explaining how people in an organisation I work with are committed to establishing and maintaining authentic relationships when the challenge came: ‘What does that mean in practice? Are people ever really authentic?’
These are great questions. Authenticity is a difficult value to work through practically, psychologically and culturally. After all, it demands awareness, intentionality and behaviour all aligned around an ethic of truthfulness. It implies openness and honesty, a commitment to integrity.
What happens if a person, group, community or organisation lacks self-awareness, has mixed motives and agendas, confuses its own assumptions or perspective with ‘truth’ per se? What happens if being open and honest about a feeling, an opinion or an evaluation is discouraged culturally?
I did some work with an organisation in East Africa. People were reluctant to provide honest critical feedback if it threatened relationship. Relationships form the essential cultural web that supported individuals through unemployment, ill health and other difficult circumstances.
I also did some work in South East Asia. Social harmony and relationship were regarded as primary. What does it mean in that environment to be authentic? Is it right to place personal honesty above cultural values of harmony and respect? These are difficult issues for Westerners to deal with.
In some ways, it’s not so different in the West. In Europe, for example, Germans or Dutch are regarded as more blunt, direct, than the British. Behaviours that would be regarded as culturally acceptable and even right in one environment would be regarded as insensitive or rude in another.
The Bible offers helpful words of advice: ‘speak the truth in love.’ Act with honesty and integrity but do so in a spirit of humility and love. Weigh up the consequences for others. Be sensitive to cultural values. Speak only insofar as it genuinely serves the best interests of others.
It's sometimes difficult to know what our true intentions are, how our actions will impact on others, what values others hold dear, what is in the best interest of others and from whose perspective. A preparedness for honest self examination, critical feedback and guidance is therefore essential.
The organisation I work with tries to balance authenticity with values of equal importance: partnership, passion and impact. This provides a guiding framework, a self-balancing mechanism, for navigating change and relationships. It’s not always easy but it establishes a clear intention.
It’s about valuing the person, the group, the community, the relationship. It’s about seeking to nurture and inspire passion and positive motivation. It’s about focusing on the most important things, those things that make the greatest difference for good. And it’s about speaking the truth – in love.
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.