What to Do When Authentic Isn’t Likeable

Posted on 12/07/2014

Goldfish wearing shark finAuthentic is a word thrown around a lot. Brands need to be authentic; executives need to be authentic; everything should be authentic. It makes me wonder what types of inauthentic people and products we were dealing with all these years. It also made me wonder… what happens when an executive’s authenticity makes them unlikeable? Does the brand suffer? Do customers flee? With the transparency resulting from the digital age, I would say yes.

First, let’s be clear what authentic means. Authentic is defined as “being of undisputed origin; genuine” and “accurate in representation of the facts; trustworthy; reliable”.  Somewhere along the way, we seem to have added “likeable” to the definition of authentic. Marketing and PR people often use authentic to mean relevant, approachable and likeable. In reality, someone can be authentic and not be likeable at all.

Frankly, I’ve known many business people who were truly authentic jerks. I’ve also known many business people who were authentically good-hearted people. So what do you do if you have an executive who is authentically a jerk or rude or just plain not likeable?

First see if the executive is aware the impact of their authentic self has on those around them. Gone are the days when positional authority such as a c-level title was license to be rude, condescending or abusive of the power that position enabled. Digital will out an executive’s authentic self faster than ever in the history of business and there are countless PR people out there with the scars to prove it. If the executive is unaware, coming to this realization will be a difficult but important step to crafting new approaches in their communications and presence. If their authentic self is viewed unfavorably by customers and employees it will show up in higher prices paid for services (the “maintenance tax” of doing business with them); lower prices demanded by customers (if they have to put up with this, then by goodness they don’t want to pay for it) and in possibly higher employee turnover.

Second get the executive some coaching.  This is not about changing who one is at their core – many of those authentic jerks are very bright and don’t mean harm, they are just dealing with deep seeded lack of confidence or fear that comes out in unproductive ways. A good coach can help reset an executive while not making them feel like they are being overly crafted into someone they’re not. Practice putting the coach’s advice in motion with business meetings and debrief on a compare/contrast of the impact of the new versus old approach. Adjust as needed.

Third, reinforce that no one is perfect. Authenticity is about being real. Real people have good days and bad days.  No one is 100% on message and on their game 100% of the time – it simply isn’t possible. So identify the triggers that send an executive into their “red zone” and have strategies in place for what to do when they find themselves there. This may include excusing themselves from the conversation; suggesting the conversation continue later; or injecting a bit of humor to diffuse the situation. A good coach can help with a plan to try and tailor over time.

Being authentic is about being real. Being likeable follows when you have a high level of self-awareness of your impact on those around you.