Authenticity

tl;dr: Acting in a way consistent with stated values indicates authenticity.

Authenticity

I've been having trouble sleeping lately. This is probably some exotic combination of standard work-related stress, general pandemic-related stress, having two school-aged kids at home all day every day being virtually schooled while at the same time trying to work from that same home, and a dozen other equally riveting sources of zenlessness.

In normal times, not sleeping like this would fall into that last category, creating a nice recursive feedback loop. Right now, in this time and place, it doesn't even rate. In fact, it's given me a lot of 'free' time in which to contemplate the deeper mysteries. Last night's deeper mystery was around authenticity. Specifically how it relates to software engineering, companies, and my own management style.

Listen, we all know that authenticity is important, right? Everyone knows that. It's in tweets, it's in memes, it's in corporate mission statements and company About Us pages and advertisements. It's probably on someone's tattoo. Okay, it's totally on someone's tattoo. Google it, I'll wait.

Tattoos are not what I was thinking about last night. Last night I was contemplating whether I was being authentic in my role as a director of software engineering in a company that is not traditionally associated with, well, software engineering. And this led down a bit of a rabbit hole. How does someone know they're being authentic, or working for a someone to whom authenticity matters? What does authenticity even mean?

If we look up the dictionary definition, we get this:

au·then·tic·i·ty
noun: the quality of being authentic.

Thanks Oxford. Really helpful. Quality defining, right there. Let's see how far down the rabbit hole goes shall we?

au·then·tic
adjective: of undisputed origin; genuine.
adjective: made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.
adjective: (in existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.
adjective: (of a church mode) comprising the notes lying between the principal note or final and the note an octave higher.

That's a little more helpful. Putting aside the religion-musical implications of the word (which are actually quite interesting and I'm going to explore them in my own time), we've ended up with something we can talk about at tea with rabbits.

I really like that word used in the first definition: 'genuine'. It came to mind several times as I was laying there staring at the dark ceiling. We could look up the word genuine, and continue falling down the hole, but I think we're where we need to be. At this point I feel an intuitive grasp of the word genuine, so I'll leave looking it up as an exercise for the reader.

So the question becomes: Am I being authentic? In my day-to-day work, where I spend a significant amount of my time and energy, am I being genuine? How would I know for sure? Saying 'Like pornography, I'll know it when I see it' is simply not acceptable. What metrics can I use to measure it? I considered the exercise for a long time before realizing it was never going to be quantifiable in a satisfactory way.

But! I could develop a heuristic (I have become the sort of person who uses the word 'heuristic' in casual conversation, apparently. I bow my head in shame) that might at least indicate a trajectory.  And after a bunch of deep thinking I decided the first basis of that heuristic is values.

Values

For me it all starts with values -  in the definition of values, and specifically in the statement of values. As a person, as a manager (ask anyone who's worked in food service, these are not always mutually inclusive concepts), have I defined my values? Even bigger than myself, what about as a company? As a Canadian?

I realize that some of those things are outside my wheelhouse right now (remember, it's the middle of the night and I'm trying not to wake my wife or children up), so I'm going to stick to my Circle of Influence as it exists right now. That means my personal values and my values as someone who has considerable impact on other people's careers. Fortunately for me, it turns out these two aspects of me have a high degree of Venn. The circles are more or less identical.

I did some thinking about what I value, as a person and a manager. While this is not by any means a comprehensive list, it's a nice illustration of what I stand for. Here are a few things I value and believe in, in no particular order:

  • Honesty
  • Simplicity
  • Accountability
  • Optimism
  • Pragmatism
  • Service
  • Understanding

So great! I have this amazing and incredibly generic list of… words. What do they mean?

I'll tell you what they mean. They mean nothing at all, until I measure my actions against the yardstick that those values are delineating. Specifically, they imply a question. And that question is: am I acting in a way that is consistent with my values?

What would that even look like?

Actions

Acting in a way that is consistent with those stated values might look like this:

Honesty - Do I always tell the truth when I can, and if there's something I can't say (for legal or HR reasons, for example, things out of my control), do I say that there's something I cannot talk about? It means defaulting to 'open'.

Simplicity - Do I always ask why and what if? Why is our static marketing site (which is literally never updated!) built in React and running on a dozen instances behind a load balancer with no CDN? What if the site was instead static HTML on an S3 bucket behind CloudFront?

Optimism - Have I assumed there's a good reason for the above!?! Also, have I stepped back and reminded myself to never assume malice when ignorance or lack of experience are equally valid explanations? Do I choose to believe the best of people?

Pragmatism - Do I ask if this decision make sense? Have I thought about second-order consequences? Is the reason I'm inclined to say no to something supported by facts, or is it a knee-jerk reaction to a situation that only has a similar shape to something that might have happened in the past?

Understanding - Have I actively sought out opinions grounded in diverse experiences? Have I encouraged my team (or my kids) to ask 'and then what?' Have I considered who else this might impact, and how?

By asking myself these sorts of questions on a regular basis, and being able to feel comfortable saying 'yes, I've done these things' more often than not, I can get an admittedly imperfect, but at least directionally useful sense of whether or not I am acting in an authentic way.

Bigger than me

This concept can be applied to contexts much larger than myself. When I'm thinking about the company I work for, or one I am considering working for, I can find those company's stated values (they're usually on the careers page, or being recited by the Talent Acquisition Specialist you're currently communicating with), and then measure the collective actions against those stated values. If those actions are consistent with those stated values, then this indicates that the company is likely acting in an authentic manner. Being authentic. But what if the company is acting in a way that's not consistent with those stated values?

Here's the thing about values. They'll always out. What you really believe in will always be reflected by your actions, whether you're a person, a company or a country. You cannot act in a way that is inconsistent with your values. It's an irrefutable truth.

Authenticity doesn't demand you act in accordance with your values, because you always will. What authenticity demands is that your stated values are the same as your true values - the ones reflected in your actions. I know. That was a lot of reading for a not very profound result.

The point

The point is that it's actually pretty easy to measure authenticity, either in a person or an organization. You determine what that person or organization's stated values are, and then you measure actions against those stated values. Authenticity in this context means that you are acting in a way consistent with your stated values.

And with that prevarication about the bush firmly lodged in the 'Done' column, I was able to finally get some sleep.

But only 45 minutes of it.

Cover photo by Adrian Lebar. Olympus PEN-F, 12mm 1/3200sec, f2, ISO200