Are you a Social Chameleon? The Risk of Faking Authenticity

by Kathy Finnerty Thomas

There is a great line from the movie Into the Woods spoken by Prince Charming – “Hey my mother raised me to be charming, not sincere.” And that is how some choose to live their lives.

Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership (Harvard Business Review). Authenticity is just that –to be authentic. Authenticity is defined as true and accurate, real and genuine. And yet there are those who choose to mask their insecurities and vulnerabilities with charm, always putting “the sale” before all else; whether the sale is an actual product or service or selling themselves.   It often seems to be the ones who say “Trust me” and preach about how authentic they are, that turn out to be the ones most lacking in true authenticity.

The Growth of Authenticity as a Leadership Principle…Trust and authenticity are intricately woven together.  As a leadership virtue, authenticity has grown rapidly in popularity in recent years for a variety of reasons- Multiple scandals and distrust of companies and management making employees and shareholders suspicious, syndical and skeptical.  In 2012, trust in business leaders fell to an all-time low (Edelman Trust Barometer).  A lack of authenticity, trust and transparency led to a huge mistrust of the American Banking System and many financial insitutions following the financial crisis.

Employee engagement or those who are psychologically committed at work, has also reach a low point. In a worldwide Gallup poll only 13% of employees were engaged at work and the greatest reason for changing jobs was a result of mistrust, misalignment of values, frustration and burnout. The growth of authenticity has developed from this lack of confidence by the public and low employee morale.

When leaders lead with true authenticity their words and actions match. They are truthful and honest and open and they inspire their employees to a higher commitment and extraordinary efforts. It is no wonder that companies are now focusing on the importance of this trait. It doesn’t require that a leader bares their soul and details all their weaknesses, vulnerabilities and insecurities. However it does require a confidence in their own strengths and the ability to acknowledge that these exist. Some of the best leaders openly acknowledge that they don’t know everything and respectfully lead those who bring strengths lacking in themselves.

Richard Branson openly acknowledges his dyslexia. Openly admitting weakness is both liberating and draws people to great leaders.   Great leaders are not afraid to hire people who are smarter than they are.

The Social Chameleon…However many business leaders and politicians have been driven to become chameleons to cover their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Because of this flexibility they often rise rapidly in organizations and this plays best to the skill of the social chameleon. However, they often talk a great deal about authenticity and its importance while they fake. This type of person needs to move rapidly in an organization before this inauthentic behavior is discovered. Some are incredibly skilled at this technique and lead others to believe they are truly authentic. However, molding yourself to please everyone, can create problems of its own leading to the disintegration of this authentic perception.

Those who always try “to be the right person in the right place at the right time,” according to Mark Snyder, a social psychologiest at the University of Minnesota, became extraordinarily attuned to the ways others react to them. They continually monitor their social performance, skillfully adjusting it when they detect that they are not having the desired effect.”   (

The challenge for those choosing to fake authenticity while also attempting to say and do whatever is necessary to please everyone is that our brains give more credence to body language and actions than they do to words. When the words and body language don’t match, audiences believe the visual clues and distrust the words.

This chameleon approach to pleasing others and constantly working to make a good impression by changing oneself into what others want to see and believe can spill over into personal relationships as well with less stable and satisfying friendships and relationships. Long term friendships become much more difficult to maintain when they lack authenticity. The chameleon in some cases has lost sight of who they truly are at their core rendering them incapable of a true and honest relationship at work or personally.

Once a lack of authenticity is perceived it can color everything that has been said leading up to that discovery. Using words that belie their meaning just to please or impress leads to mistrust of anything that is said before or after resulting in a loss of employee morale, distrust by customers, a loss of votes for politicians and a damage to personal relationships.

In politics we have seen examples of this in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign when she described her flight into Bosnia and the danger she experienced only to have photographs from that day exposed revealing her lie. We also saw the same with Mitt Romney during debates where his lack of authenticity was revealed in both body language and impromptu comments that contradicted his intended message.

Can trust be rebuilt?

So if you have lost credibility by faking authenticity, can it be rebuilt? Can confidence be regained once it is lost through the lack of authenticity? Trust, once lost, can often never be fully regained. In many cases it does depend upon the extent of the damage. It also is dependent in many cases on the amount of knowledge others have about the person. For example, if you know a person well or for a long time, small occurrences of in-authenticity are overlooked. However, if there is not a strong relationship or a lack of knowledge, one occurrence can cause others to assume that everything that person has said is untrue or said only to impress or flatter or mislead. We have seen this often in the political arena where a politician rises rapidly in popularity, only drop off the charts in a few weeks.

I believe it can be rebuilt but regaining trust is never easy. The leader has to own their mistakes which may be the hardest step of all for the chameleon and an impediment that prevents many from attempting to restore trust. The value of the relationship often determines the willingness to commit to such a task. Personally accountability backed with consistent and trustworthy actions are critical. Trust can only be restored over time and it doesn’t happen overnight.

In business, in politics and in our personal relationships, it is a choice to act in an authentic way or to choose the path of the chameleon. However, there are many benefits for those that choose to be authentic.

True effective leadership requires authenticity and trust. It leads to success through employee commitment and engagement in addition to strong customer loyalty. These are the initial building blocks to great organizations and are critical to the successful implementation of a true vision and values based culture. Article at LinkedIn.