Authenticity Rooted in Empathy

Understanding others is key in being true to ourselves

Nina Wagner
5 min readNov 18, 2021

I was recently listening to a podcast hosted by Adam Grant, titled “Authenticity is a Double-Edged Sword.” In it, he discusses the “just be yourself” popular work advice that focuses on being authentic (a topic I’m very passionate about myself).

During the conversation, there was one line that really resonated with me.

“Authenticity, without empathy, is selfish.”

The Authenticity Movement

There is a huge push from organizations, from employers, from thought leaders encouraging people to live authentically. Be yourself, in your life, and in your work. The intention is to free people from the societal expectations that often shape us into different versions of ourselves in different settings. I don’t know about you, but I find that any sort of façade can be very difficult to maintain! The mental energy that goes into putting on the right “face” could be way better spent on productive activities.

So great that the authenticity movement is picking up more and more momentum.

The Risk of the Authenticity Movement

BUT what are the pitfalls of the authenticity conversation? As Adam Grant discusses, the risk stems from using it as an excuse to justify “bad” behaviors.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown shares an interesting point. “Labeling a problem in a way that makes it about who people are, rather than the choices they are making let’s all of us off the book; too bad, that’s who I am.”

The risk of this permission to make self serving choices, guised as living authentically, doesn’t take into consideration the effect of our authentic behaviours on others. In the workplace (and in our personal lives for that matter), in order to be part of a community (team, family, social group) we have to balance our personal needs with the needs of others. Whether that be emotional needs, communication needs, physical needs, etc.

Marriage is a perfect example of this. Thinking about conflict… for most couples, both partners will have a unique style of conflict management. It’s rare that both sides handle conflict in the same way. One person may like to get into a heated conversation, the other may prefer to retreat and internalize their thoughts before communicating. The authenticity movement tells both sides that it’s perfectly acceptable to act the way that feels right for them. But what happens in the relationship if both sides charge forward with the conflict management that is authentic to them? I’ll tell you — nothing good happens. The conflict is likely to escalate, with both parties feeling unseen/unheard by the misalignment of styles.

In this case, authenticity doesn’t take into consideration the recipient of your authenticity. While you might feel good, momentarily, about living your true self — it hasn’t helped you solve the problem, or improved your relationship with the other person.

In the workplace, take for example a colleague whose communication style is aggressive and condescending. Authenticity tells the person — it’s ok, if that’s who you are, and that’s how you naturally communicate, then that’s how you are free to act! However, what happens when they communicate this way? Do you think the recipient will be responsive? In my experience, this type of communication is often met with reservation, apprehension, and inevitably leads to avoidance behaviour (because, let’s be honest, no one likes to be talked to that way). And avoidance, as an example, is a really big problem in a team dynamic; that can have far reaching, and lasting effects that are hard to recover from.

The authentic behaviour here serves the individual, but not the team as a whole.

Which brings us back to our original quote…

“Authenticity, without empathy, is selfish.”

The Authenticity + Empathy Equation

So if I’m saying that authenticity is good… but can also be bad… how do we find the right balance?

Adam Grant explains it perfectly — we find the right balance with empathy.

The New York Times published an article, How to be More Empathic, that I think highlights some great points. The author explains empathy, in it’s simplest form, as “understanding how others feel and being compassionate toward them. It happens when two parts of the brain work together, neuroscientists say — the emotional center perceives the feelings of others and the cognitive center tries to understand why they feel that way and how we can be helpful to them.”

It shifts the focus from self (my needs, my feelings) and refocuses on the other person (their needs, their feelings) by challenging you to experience a situation from their perspective.

In doing so, it enables us to see our actions in how they are received, not just in how the are lived. Because, let’s be real, all human interaction is a two-way experience. Even those with little empathy, are on the receiving end of countless exchanges with others, and will experience the feelings of a recipient.

Empathy, therefore, helps us negate selfish behaviour. It helps us understand the impact and influence we have on other people. And allows us to better adjust to each circumstance, and the unique elements that should influence our behaviours, from a place of putting ourselves in another’s position.

Now, I’m not saying that empathy should drive us back to a place of acting differently in different situations. That’s definitely not the point! It’s about harnessing and showing restraint in our authenticity, not allowing ourselves to run rampant (say what you want, when you want, how you want, etc.).

I’m saying that empathy helps us balance our authenticity and protects us from selfish behaviours that can negatively impact our ability to be part of a healthy community.

On the smallest scale, it challenges us to consider the other person (even if just for a split second). This consideration will influence our choice of words, choice of action (or inaction), and help us best navigate different situations. We are still able to live authentically, but authenticity in a controlled and considerate way.

It’s all about BALANCE, and accountability.

The Choices We Make in Our Authenticity

Brown, as referenced above, finishes her thought on labeling people as a certain way (this is who I am), as opposed to labeling their choices (this is how I chose to act) — with a valuable note on accountability. She explains “I’m a huge believer in holding people accountable for their behaviours.”

The word choice here is critical. All of our behaviours are based on conscious (maybe sometimes subconscious) choices. My 5 year old hasn’t learned how to best filter or process her emotions just yet; often her behaviour is based on raw feelings. I’ll give her a pass because she’s 5. But as adults, with honed social skills and a compotant emotional processing engine, we don’t have the luxury of this raw, unabashed behaviour. We’re too smart for that. Hence — choices. You choose to play the victim, you choose to be an asshole, you choose to not consider the recipient of your action.

That choice is not authentic; that choice is selfish.

Which brings us back to empathy once again. To steer away from selfishness, we need to choose focus on more than just ourselves. Choose to consider the other people in a given situation, choose to think about how they might be feeling, what is motivating their behaviour, and how they will react to yours. Choose to look outside of yourself, and choose to be part of the community around you.

Life is all about choices. Are the choices you make helping you or holding you back?

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do you operate from a place of authenticity?
  2. In your authenticity, do you consider the impact on others?
  3. How can you embrace empathy, in support of living authentically, to make choices that benefit your growth and your active role as part of something more than just yourself?



Nina Wagner

People First Leader | Personal Growth Obsessed | Just Trying to Figure It Out