Why Should Organizations be Authentic? The Competing Logics of Trust & Uniqueness

by cv harquail on June 1, 2011

Everyone agrees: It’s a good thing for organizations to be authentic.

Where folks disagree, though, is why organizations should be authentic.

Deep down, we know that authenticity is valuable. But when we try to talk about “why our organization should be more authentic” and convince others to pursue authenticity, our conversations can get pretty confusing.

We often aren’t clear about our logic and which one(s) we’re using. Worse, when we choose a logic that is wrong for the audience we want to convince, pursuing authenticity can actually look like a waste of the organization’s time.


There are two arguments for organizational authenticity: one based on trust, and one based on uniqueness.

Logic #1: Authenticity Leads to Trust


Authenticity is valuable because authenticity invites stakeholders’ trust.

Stakeholders feel safer trusting an authentic organization because being authentic makes an organization’s behaviors become more predictable, reliable, and more trustworthy. Thus, authenticity is valuable because it makes it possible for stakeholders to trust the organization.

Logic #2: Authenticity leads to Unique Contribution

Authenticity is valuable because organizations that act authentically create a more accurate and more abundant expression of their unique values, capabilities, and purpose.

Being authentic effects the type and quality of the products, services and experiences that an organization offers.  When an organization acts from its identity, it expresses its ‘one and only’-ness, who that organization is that no other organization is. Because acting authentically draws forward the indigenous qualities inside the organization, an authentic organization creates behaviors, products and services that are specific and unique to that organization.

What authentic organizations create, in terms of products, services and experiences, are less easy to substitute and more likely to be special. Thus, authenticity is valuable because it establishes a distinctiveness that, relative to other organizations, makes relationships with the authentic organization more significant to stakeholders.

Kumbaya or Competitive Advantage?

Both the Logic of Trust and the Logic of Unique Contribution make real sense, but one logic is more ‘business-like’ than the other.

To put it bluntly, the “trust” logic for authenticity has a kind of ‘Kumbaya’ feel to it, and treats authenticity as a quality that’s “nice to have” but not necessarily mission-critical.

In contrast, the logic of ‘unique contribution’ has a ‘bottom-line impact’ because authenticity is the only way to generate sustainable competitive advantage. Thus, for an organization that wants to maximize its impact and achieve its purpose, being authentic is critical to success.

Is Kumbaya or Competitive Advantage more compelling to your stakeholders?

201106011406.jpgA few weeks ago I met with some of the members of The Community Roundtable to talk with them about strategies for sustaining authenticity in their online communities. Rachel Happe started us off by asking each manager to share his or her definition of authenticity and understanding of why being authentic would be good for an organization.

To a person, the managers believed that being authentic was valuable because it leads to trust. Each of them (and each of their organizations) is striving for a more trusting and trustworthy organizational culture. The logic of uniqueness and the conversation about competitive advantage didn’t come up as readily, and I was glad to have the chance to explore the issues with this group.

Both trust and uniqueness are important arguments for organizational authenticity.

Trust is absolutely something that every organization should pursue. But trust is not the central reason for being authentic. The central reason for being authentic is to sustain our organization’s uniqueness and to put that uniqueness to work to achieve the organization’s purpose.

We need to talk more about how authenticity leads to sustainable uniqueness and why authenticity is critical to an organization’s success.

The idea that these managers were advocating for more authenticity but relying only on one logic — and the ‘kumbaya’ one at that — made me realize that we/I need to talk more about how authenticity leads to sustainable uniqueness. We need to talk more about why authentic is critical to an organization’s success.

And, it made me wonder:

  • Have we been under-utilizing the logic that organizational authenticity leads to unique contributions?
  • Have we been under-appreciating organizational authenticity not only as a virtue in and of itself, but as an engine for creating stakeholder value?
  • Are there other reasons for pursuing organizational authenticity that we’ve also overlooked?

I’d love your thoughts.

See also:
Is Authenticity the key to being “Meaningfully Different”?

Beyond Positioning: Establishing Authentic Optimal Distinctiveness

Can an organization be too different?: The Strategic Value of Optimal Distinctiveness

Images: Vans Authentic from Flatspot FSPT and FlatspotCollections


Jeremy Lewis June 2, 2011 at 3:05 am


Great question. It certainly got me thinking. I guess for me, thinking about what authenticity leads to for humans – self actualisation, which is a great motivator (if not the greatest motivator) in and of itself – led me to think that authenticity leads in an organisation context to actulisation of the organisational self, ie whatever the organisation’s goals are. So for a profit-making organisation this is sustainable shareholder value. for other organisations it will be other things, such as value to other stakeholders (as you rightly indicate). Organisations can and do have goals for themselves too, eg organisational learning. Hence I suggest that authenticity leads to organisational self fulfilment, which is aLeo a worthy outcome to pursue.

cv harquail June 2, 2011 at 11:03 am

Hi Jeremy,

I completely agree with your line of thinking, and self-actualization is an important additional “logic” .

‘Self-actualization’ is a motive for organizations too….One challenge of proposing this view of the value of authenticity is that it’s hard to tie down the collective psychological mechanisms of self-actualization at the organizational level without bringing in a lot of org theory, but I guess that’s something I should do in a future post.

Your comment also helped me realize that I was implicitly addressing the “relational” value of authenticity– what authenticity brings forth that benefits our relationships with stakeholders. Thanks so much for moving these ideas forward.

John Tropea June 8, 2011 at 9:55 pm

These are intertwingled…I think organisations that are unique are like this because workers believe in the organisation, they feel belonging and ownership…they are passionate, instrinsically motivated…they have trust and have a meaningful relationship with the organisation.

Without this relationship and trust, is it possible to be as unique and creative…for creative conditions we may first need to be comfortable and engaged.

I think the community managers saw the “Trust” angle as their job as facilitators is about coaching, enabling and making work meaningful and engaged for workers. Then it’s the workers who are primed in this cultivated environment to bring about the uniqueness in workers.

cv harquail June 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Hi John- thanks for raising this question of how trust and uniqueness might be related. I didn’t mean to imply that the logics contradict each other… as you’ve pointed out, they depend on each other. Thanks something I need to explore so thanks for that suggestion. I think what I really worry about is that the ‘trust’ explanation often sounds so blandly ‘good’ that it loses its persuasiveness…. and in the meantime few folks even think about the distinctiveness part– at the organization level, anyway. At the individual level I think we’re all fine with the idea that authenticity is about expressing who we are inside into the outside…

Comments on this entry are closed.