The authentic chameleon: how to both be yourself and be flexible

Being yourself is often easier to define by when you’re not being yourself

With all this talk these days of ‘being authentic’, ‘staying true to yourself’ and ‘being real’, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether you’re committing some kind of fraud for not wearing thongs to work every day, seeing as that’s what you’re most comfortable in on the weekend, you pretentious dress shoe-wearing faker.

People can get some stick for changing their personality in different circumstances, and it can feel awkward playing the chameleon, but you might have noticed that sticking to an inflexible, uncompromising persona and wearing every thought on your sleeve can hold you back big time.

Authenticity is important, but it’s not about the superficial. Is it really ‘inauthentic’ to change your demeanour or clothes or mannerisms depending on the circumstances? Doesn’t everyone behave differently depending on the people they’re with — whether it’s their mother or their best mates. Just because you behave differently and talk about different things in different situations, it doesn’t mean that there is an authentic version of your self and another version that is not as genuine.

The other thing to remember is that we are not the same person our whole lives. You don’t have to act the same way you did when you were 16 or 21 or even last year. You might start feeling that you’re not behaving like who you truly are, but maybe your true self has just evolved.

Adapting to the situation is also just about respect, in the same way you’d greet people differently in the culture of England as compared to Japan. It’s about making other people feel more comfortable so you can create trust, communicate more openly and generate more mutually beneficial solutions.

To navigate the delicate balance between being yourself and connecting with people requires firstly a clear understanding of your core ideals — the crucial aspects of who you are, what your goals are and what you are not willing to compromise on. For example, it’s hard to imagine that the type of clothes you wear represent who you truly are inside, so these can change with the situation — wearing a tie and suit might help you to fit in by making people feel more relaxed around you. Your stance on where you want your career to go, however, is something that you should hold tightly to, albeit discussed at the right time and place.

The trick is to represent your authentic self without suppressing your true feelings and beliefs. If you’re clear on these things, then you’re cooking with gas. It’s like knowing that the core objective of boxing is to win the fight, not to just hurt your opponent or demonstrate fancy moves. Once you know how to play the game of authenticity, you know what you must say passionately and consistently. These are the ‘tier one’ things that you focus on. The rest of the details can be crafted to suit the situation at hand.

For example, if you’ve been brought up on a farm, chances are you have certain core beliefs about what it means to be a member of a farming community. For example, if there is a fire, then it’s all hands on deck no matter what. It might also mean that a liberal dose of swearing and humour is commonly used to lubricate the conversation. And if you try on any fancy words, then you’re likely to cop a serving in return.

However, imagine that you’re lobbying a farm case to a Canberra politician who speaks with a more ‘proper’ accent and restrained affectation. This isn’t the time to take a stand and use your usual language and vocabulary, no matter how false his accent might seem to you. It’s far more important to get what you want, so you’re going to have to play in his space and return serve as eloquently as you can. It’s what you really want that you should be authentic about.

It’s important to allow people to identify with you, to think you might run into each other through work or as friends and might share the same sense of humour. Lapse into farm-hand language and you run a far greater risk of losing someone’s favour and attention and of painting yourself as the ‘other’, which leads to conflict rather than teamwork.

As disappointing as it may first appear, the fact is that most people judge a book by its cover and do so within the first minute. It’s not a deliberate bias, but a subconscious defence mechanism that has evolved over millions of years. We are instinctively programmed to be wary of people who are different, because it’s a better survival tactic to keep within your own tribe and perceive others as a danger. So, it’s really important that you show people you are in their tribe through your appearance, language and other superficial means.

It’s also important to exude confidence, even when you’re shit scared, because people are also more likely to believe someone who seems confident. It might seem unfair that people judge you immediately and prefer a show of confidence over someone who is being more honest about their uncertainty, but how else are people supposed to decide who to trust? And why should someone have faith in your idea if you don’t seem 100% committed to it? So, you can either lament the unfairness of the universe, or put some effort and practise into ensuring your little part of the universe is more likely to swing your way.

As a young and idealistic geologist, it used to make me cringe when people presented a story that seemed to be more aspirational than fact-based. I’d sit there frustrated at how wrong it was to present anything other than the bare facts. But I was missing the point. By definition, a strategy must be aspirational and it’s often difficult to grasp someone else’s vision.

When I was putting together presentations for my new mining venture, I would flinch from commentary that suggested the blue sky potential of the project. It just didn’t feel authentic to me. But after a while, I began to realise that investors needed the blue sky vision because they were using it to balance perceived risks and rewards of the project. It was an important part of their investment decision-making process.

From my perspective it didn’t make sense, but from an investor’s perspective, with investments in many other companies, it made complete sense, because they were balancing their risk amongst a portfolio of stocks. Sometimes, investors are actually seeking more risk for their portfolio, because they’re looking for blue sky potential to balance the return of that risk — high risks that return high rewards.

The big lesson for me was that my presentations had to be written from an investor’s perspective, even if that required me to extrapolate a little. Whilst it initially felt somewhat inauthentic, I gained confidence as I watched investors buy into the concepts and the company, without suffering any kind of disappointment or regret from the outcomes.

Eventually, it became second nature and to this day, I continue to remind myself to suspend disbelief when starting a new venture. The outcomes continue to surprise me. We don’t like to admit it, but we really can’t predict the future. Whatever you think will happen is probably half way between the two extremes of what can really happen.

I’m not suggesting you should believe in fairy-tales. Make sure you do your homework on who you are presenting to and know their tier one goals and problems, so that you understand what they’re looking for.

This idea was perfectly demonstrated by a friend of mine who worked for a company that achieved great success by understanding customer needs and servicing those needs. This company took great pride in making risky investments to prove up new customer-focused concepts over sustained periods. The company merged with another company, which was far more focused on shareholder needs — cost cutting and maximizing revenue for the quarter to keep their share price up.

Inevitably, a war broke out, with my friend on the side of the customer-focused company. She wasn’t sure how to resolve the problem and how to win the war of presentations. I suggested she examine exactly how the cost-focused company was perceived by major shareholders, stock brokers and other stakeholders.

It turned out that shareholders were particularly concerned about the sustainability of the second company, given that asset prices had reached a hiatus and their most likely movement was down. She rewrote her presentation from the perspective of investors and considered recent movements in the market.

Her presentation was so impressive that the CEO included it in his presentation to shareholders. Needless to say, she doesn’t have to worry about her future, because her boss knows she’s coming out of the same corner.

Importantly, her story didn’t change. She was still focused on her core values of investing in high-reaping customer initiatives, but she reframed her proposition to fit an investor’s perspective. Not only did this make it more relevant to her boss, but she also opened up new opportunities for herself.

Did it feel a little fake at first? Yes, of course! She had stepped out of her normal presenting routine to do things a different way, but she never sacrificed her authenticity.

Be a chameleon and try different ways of presenting yourself. Watch carefully what is happening around you and try to define the mood. Are people anxious, pressed for time or relaxed and needing more time to make their decisions? Is it a creative conversation looking to expand possibilities, or is the conversation about cutting things back and prioritising? These questions are usually pretty easy to answer when you consider the state of the business and whether business conditions are good or not.

Know what your core values are and be prepared to play the chameleon with the rest. You never know what possibilities you might create when you’re flexible enough to go with the flow.

Nick Poll is a passionate mentor and is putting together an online magazine for aspiring CEOs and those who want to achieve their greatest potential. Contact details: nick@nickpoll.com