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When Authenticity Doesn’t Translate

Natalia Karelaia, INSEAD Associate Professor of Decision Sciences, and Benjamin Kessler, Asia Editor and Digital Manager |

Attempts to cultivate authenticity can backfire if you are seen to project the wrong values.

Authenticity has become a prized commodity, in and out of the office. At first glance, this makes perfect sense: People who are true to their own moral compass, for whom “what you see is what you get”, are inherently more predictable and trustworthy than those who act based on which way the wind is blowing.

However, some people’s authenticity is apparently valued higher than others’. Take U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who once said of her campaign, “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t passionately believe it was the right thing to do.” A textbook statement of authenticity—yet pundits have pointed to an “authenticity gap” between Mrs. Clinton and her rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

There appears to be more to being considered authentic—and reaping the social benefits thereof—than merely representing one’s true self to others. And if there is a secret ingredient that explains the authenticity gap, then those lacking it may actually pay a price for being true to themselves, as doing so may signal a genuine social incapacity.

My recent working paper (co-written by Laura Guillén of ESMT and Hannes Leroy of Erasmus University) finds that authenticity is recognised and rewarded when it aligns itself with the common good, as with Sen. Sanders’s fiery speeches on inequality and racism. In the public mind, authenticity is so intertwined with “prosocial” moral values that they have almost blended together. If authenticity is the enemy of mendacity, and mendacity is a great social ill, then authenticity must be socially beneficial. Anything that is not perceived as such is inauthentic, or so goes the chain of associations. This could put the circumspect Mrs. Clinton at a disadvantage in the authenticity wars.

Felt vs. perceived authenticity

For our study, we had 257 computer engineers at a multinational software development company complete an online survey about how authentic they felt at work. We also polled their colleagues and collaborators (810 in total) on whether they felt the engineers were authentic, cared for others, and were generally likeable.

One year later, we asked the engineers’ direct supervisors to evaluate their job performance, so we could explore possible career implications of the above factors.

Analysing the survey responses from the engineers and their contacts, we found no correlation between felt authenticity (how authentic the engineers felt they were) and perceived authenticity (whether they came across to others as authentic). Rather, the perception of authenticity was strongly linked to how “prosocially oriented” the engineers were seen to be—i.e., how much caring for and consideration of others they displayed, according to their colleagues. Those with high levels of felt authenticity but who ranked low for prosocial orientation actually were judged to be less authentic, not more, by their colleagues. In fact, felt authenticity didn’t make much difference even when prosocial orientation was high, implying that, contrary to prevailing opinion, “being true to yourself” has little to do with being perceived as authentic.

As you might expect, perceived authenticity was also highly correlated with how well-liked the engineers were among their colleagues. And this, in turn, had a positive and significant effect on job performance evaluations.

In sum, we argue that the career benefits of authenticity accrue to people whose behaviour evinces the right values—meaning prosocial ones—no matter whether that behaviour is actually authentic.

The hierarchy of values

Our findings indicate the dominant place that selflessness occupies in the hierarchy of human values. It is as if paying homage to prosocial values helps confirm one’s right to belong to the human family. Elevating personal interests above the social group, e.g. by not appearing to care enough for others’ welfare, makes one appear less human and therefore less authentic.

The universality of self-transcendent values is further reflected in the gender-neutrality of our findings. Despite the fact that women encounter greater social pressure to display such values as kindness, compassion, and self-sacrifice, the emphasis on prosocial orientation held true for both genders.

Also, please note that our test group was composed of engineers, a cohort not generally known for their people skills. Had we administered the same study to a group of, say, salespeople or customer-facing staff, the social effects we observed may have been even stronger.

Overall, our research would seem to add to a burgeoning body of evidence opposing the cult of authenticity. For example, one oft-cited study found that so-called “social chameleons” were better able to position themselves for success within their social environment than highly authentic people. But violating social norms isn’t the only costly error that authenticity can inspire in the workplace. There is also a socially constructed ideal self that one deviates from at one’s peril.

For Hillary Clinton no less than managers, signalling prosocial concern might be an effective impression management strategy to increase the chances to be perceived as authentic, liked, and gain professionally as a result.

Natalia Karelaia is an Associate Professor of Decision Sciences at INSEAD.

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Comments
Morten Schaldemose,

Faced with a growing range of tech solutions in marketing, from AI to big data to blockchain, B2B companies too often choose the status quo. Recent evidence suggests the divide between success and failure is not about how much companies spend but how well they integrate technological solutions which create value.


In other words, a company’s digital investment does not necessarily translate into marketing return on investment (ROI). For that to happen the firm needs to build a digital marketing organisation – data-driven marketing capabilities around the customer. 


A pivotal and enduring dimension of success in B2B markets lies in the relationship a company has with its clients. Thus, identifying the type of relationships that you have or would like to have with your customers is an excellent starting point to select and embed digital technology into your strategy. And this process is increasingly important for B2B companies if they are to maintain growth even as digital disruption accelerates the shift from B2BigB to B2SmallB.   


Unpacking customer-centricity by relationship type


Customer-centricity is a concept that is touted by many companies but is difficult to implement. To meaningfully address this challenge, companies need to go beyond classic segmentation (such as size and industry type, the equivalent of demographics in B2C contexts) and unpack the relationships with their customers (such as relationship frequency or depth, the equivalent of psychographics in B2C contexts). Susan Fournier of Boston University offers a useful framework by likening customer relationships to friendship and romantic relationships: Fling, transactional, best friends, marriage partners or enemies.


The next step is to select a technology that matches the relationship. Big data, for instance, might be a starting point for deepening your understanding of customers. Chat bots could facilitate frequent interactions with them. A particular need for transparency and automation would derive immense value from the internet of things (IoT).


Intel exemplifies a B2B company which analyses its customer relationships and tailors technologies to customer types. The IT multinational moved from a product-centric to customer-centric focus beginning in 2015. It streamlined numerous product portals into a single entry point for customers, delivering personalised content through marketing automation and analytics, and linking marketing efforts to sales.


Roadmap for B2B digital transformation


Leading B2B company Air Liquide, similarly, has found great value in embracing the customer-centricity thought process. My new case study, Digitally-powered Customer-centricity in the Industrial Gas Sector: The Air Liquide-Airgas Merger, co-authored with Jean-Michel Moslonka, the CEO of AGALIO, shows how the global industrial gas company is powering growth by developing capabilities to nurture its customer relationships after merging with Airgas, a B2SmallB player. Air Liquide has hit upon the right formula by differentiating its post-merger clientele, analysing and understanding its relationship with each customer segment, and adopting digital technologies that can transform those relationships thereby creating customer value.


Air Liquide acquired the smaller player because in the industrial gas market, as in other industries, the B2SmallB market was expanding much faster than that of B2B. Airgas, with its six distribution centres, 900 branches, 5,000 delivery drivers and an online shop, specialised in catering to small customers’ demands for fast delivery and personalised service. Air Liquide, meanwhile, focused on large clients such as ExxonMobil via a customer relationship management software platform and purpose-built plants.


Getting customer-centricity right in the digital age, as demonstrated by the Air Liquide-Airgas merger, involves three steps after the relationship is clearly defined:


Test and learn: Consider the technologies and communication channels that are adapted to strengthening each type of relationship. Companies would do well to test and learn strategies. Testing – via methods like A/B testing two versions of a strategy – is the only way to understand how relationships could be improved. However, it is the other half of the process, learning, that is often neglected by companies. Those that act as learning agents which find what works and what doesn’t equally enlightening are the firms that succeed.


Air Liquide, for example, in 2014 launched ALBEE, a pilot e-commerce site selling gas cylinders. The foray, despite recording modest sales, gave the firm a taste of B2SmallB e-commerce, web analytics and digital marketing. In 2017, Air Liquide replaced the pilot with general purpose e-commerce site called myGAS. By the following year, myGAS accounted for a remarkable double-digit percentage of Air Liquide’s sales to SMEs in the nine European countries where the site was active.


Match tech to client: Air Liquide, for one, is prioritising marketing automation, virtual reality, 3D printing, AI and other technologies in its customer-centricity drive. Firms also gain competencies by hiring experts and acquiring start-ups or, in Air Liquide’s case, a thriving company with complementary strengths.


In the case of mergers and acquisitions, the question then is of blending two (or more) different company cultures. At Air Liquide, the process is carried out via cross-pollinating customer-centric initiatives. For example, its staff work in short rotation programmes at Airgas while Airgas managers have been appointed to Air Liquide in non-American positions.


Integrate tech and new practices: Understanding the customer relationship should be an ongoing process. One part of that solution is mining big data on social media and news outlets. Firms could also gather insight through tools such as the Net Promoter Score (NPS), a measure of influence of recommendation (“On a scale of one to 10, how likely would you recommend Airgas to your friend?”). Air Liquide’s voice of the customer programme, for instance, incorporates NPS and is able to measure customer loyalty in any geography.


Air Liquide’s experience points the way forward for other established B2B firms seeking to bolster customer service in new growth markets. At a time when the giant markets of SMEs such as China and India offer unprecedented opportunities, the roadmap to customer centricity has never been more relevant.


The Air Liquide case study is available from INSEAD or The Case Centre. Instructors who register on the INSEAD Case Publishing site also have access to video interviews, a detailed teaching note and a slide deck.



David Dubois is an Associate Professor of Marketing and the Cornelius Grupp Fellow in Digital Analytics for Consumer Behaviour at INSEAD. He co-directs the school’s Leading Digital Marketing Strategy Programme.


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Natalia Karelaia,

Dear Morten,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

You're right in saying that more research is needed to clarify how different job arrangements - or jobs themselves - may affect the expectations that people should behave in a prosocial way.

As for leaders, a recent research that focuses on leaders specifically corroborates our idea that to be perceived as authentic, one has to demonstrate care for others' interests, or, using the words from this paper, to "champion collective interests": https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303618637_True_to_what_We_stand_for_Championing_collective_interests_as_a_path_to_authentic_leadership

Best wishes,
Natalia

Brahms,

I hear this term from India's Gurus. I understood it is really inclusive of other values such as Authenticity, Integrity, Responsibility, Empowerment, Empowering, and Enlightenment simply AIRE stamp. So, this is the lens we are going to view ourselves and others. It is easy to weed out!
happy to share this Nugget of Wisdom!

alexis tex,

thank you for this idea "For our study, we had 257 computer engineers at a multinational software development company complete an online survey about how authentic they felt at work. We also polled their colleagues and collaborators (810 in total) on whether they felt the engineers were authentic, cared for others, and were generally likeable"
you are amazing Natalia, thank you

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