In a society that pushes conformity, how can you courageously choose to be who you really are—with yourself, in your relationships, and at work—despite the fear of judgment?
In The Authenticity Principle, award-winning leadership and diversity expert Ritu Bhasin gives you the tools to make this happen. Combining the latest neuroscience, leadership, diversity, and mindfulness research with a wealth of practical exercises, Bhasin unveils a cutting-edge framework for living and leading more authentically. She also reveals inspiring insights from a range of leaders who have overcome barriers to being authentic – including her own personal journey from lawyer to entrepreneur.
In this interview, I speak to Ritu Bhasin about how her years of work has led to her developing a model for authenticity that helps to empower people, fearlessly, to choose how and when to show-up as their authentic selves, adapted selves and performing selves. We discuss how choosing to live life authentically is the most important step we can take to thrive in life, relationships, and our careers.
Q: What does the word authenticity mean?
[Ritu Bhasin]: I have found that the term is thrown around a lot in the context of the workplace leadership, even personal wellness, health development, which is what led me to dig deep into what is authenticity and how can I apply this in a way that is practical to my life. I define authenticity as the consistent practice of choosing to know who we are and when I say know who we are, if I were to say, who are you? Who are you at your core? What would you say? It’s a big question.
Essentially it is about knowing who we are and embracing who we are. For a lot of us, we come to know who we are, but then we rail against our identities and I can tell you for me, I got so used to, as a lawyer navigating the legal profession which is what I used to do before I started my own business, before I became an entrepreneur, I was so used to conforming, masking aspects of my identity that I became lost in my identity. I didn’t know who I was. I was completely lost.
I did a lot of self-work to help me get closer to who I am, but what I realised is I was railing against my identities. If we are going to live an authentic life, we have to know who we are as much as possible so that we feel better connected to ourselves. We bring this spirit into our interactions with others. It’s like a magnet. When I do it, you’ll be invited to do the same thing back with me and this is what causes us to create more meaningful relationships.
Q: How do we get to know our authentic selves?
[Ritu Bhasin]: ‘Four agreements’, a book by John Miguel Ruiz is excellent and I highly recommend it. In this book, Ruiz talks about, as children we experience a domestication process the same way animals do and this is what I feel happens to a lot of us as children, where rather than having who we are, our authenticity, our essence unlocked for us, instead we have put upon us layers and layers of rules. Rules are around how we ought to behave, and most importantly, how we ought not to behave. We take this very complicated, confusing, and demoralising code of behaviour into our adulthood with us, we are then in a place where it is as a leader, focus on being authentic with your team members. We struggle because we are like ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’ because all these rules have been imposed. We become domesticated as children and then even as adults in the workplace, we have more rules added to how we should behave. The number one way for us to have a better sense of who we are is to engage in deep self-enquiry or self-reflection practices to help us peel the layers of the onion, to get to our core and to get to our essence.
Q: How do we prepare ourselves for the consequences of finding our true selves?
[Ritu Bhasin]: In my book, The Authenticity Principle, I talk about a framework I’ve developed for living and working and leading more authentically called the three selves and as part of the three selves in what I refer to as the zone of empowerment, lives our authentic self. Our authentic self, it’s in the zone of empowerment because it’s the truest reflection of who we are. It feels the best to do. It’s the core of who we are, it’s the essence. If there were no negative consequences for our actions, this is how we would show up. This is how we would speak and how we would dress and what we would talk about and how we would speak and all of it. Our authentic selves are made up of the good, the bad and ugly of who we are.
For any of us, as we do the deep self-reflection work that is required to reveal more of who we are and to heal from the woundedness from that domestication process that occurs, we will see bad and ugly. This is one of the most important points of my life lessons that I have had throughout my journey thus far. I think we often have this flawed, broken principle of perfection that is put on us from a very young age that we must be perfect as people, especially I say this as a woman, as a woman of colour, that ‘you must be perfect to be loved and accepted’ is a message that I internalise from a young age. I say – No-one is perfect. In fact, we are perfectly imperfect. When we do the self-reflection work to reveal who we are, everyone has bad and ugly in them and we may not like what we see, but that’s what healing and doing our work to grow as individuals and as leaders is all about.
Q: How do we adapt from situation to situation?
[Ritu Bhasin]: Yes. Let us go back to my three-selves model. I developed this model because what I found is that within workplaces in particular, leaders and businesspeople were constantly saying ‘Oh, we love authenticity, like I should be who I am, you should be yourself’. In my organisation, we cultivate an environment where everyone can bring their whole true, authentic selves and we say this in one breath. In the very next breath it is contrary, “…whatever you do, absolutely don’t do you” which is not helpful.
However, with the three selves, there are three-selves and it would be helpful for each of us to reflect on who we are in each of the buckets. I have already defined the authentic self, the core-essence of our being, feels the best to do. This is where we are who we are trying to be as much as possible. On the other side of the continuum lives the performing self. The performing self is in the zone of disempowerment. I use the term performing not in the context of high performance, but more like life is a stage and we are all actors on the stage putting out a curated sense of who we are.
When we perform, it feels humiliating, exhausting, demoralising, exclusionary to do. We want to push out of performing as much as possible because it does not serve us. For example, to have people mispronounce my name and not correct them because I worry if I tell you, then you are going to feel bad or you are going to judge me for not having an easy to pronounce name, or if I tell you how I really spend my evenings and weekends as a woman of colour or people from the LGBTQ communities will say ‘yeah I’m out, people know I’m gay, but I don’t talk about my life’.
When we mask, conform, and hide aspects of who we are, it actually-hurts and damages us in the end. But the middle self is what I the adapted self. Your adapted self is the self that says, ‘okay, I hear you, I’m going to push out of performing, but I can’t be authentic 100% of the time because I want to keep my job and I want to keep my spouse and I want to keep my family and don’t want to get voted off the island, go to jail’. No one can be authentic 100% of the time because we are tribal, we are as animals, very social. We live in communities. We need mechanisms of social control to keep us regulated. The adapted self is the self that willingly, happily chooses.
It is a choice, to adapt, to adjust our behaviour to meet our needs and the needs of others. For example, I love to swear. My favourite word, especially during the pandemic, has become the F-word which I would use often during a bantering or during a social chat. However, when I’m doing my podcast and interviews, my adapted self-shows up and I rein it in. All of us are adapting our behaviour. The question is do I want to adapt my behaviour, or do I want to reveal more of my authenticity? That’s the key piece. The last thing I will mention here is, I get asked this all the time, is, what is the difference between adapting and performing? Performing feels like crap because we don’t want to do it. We do it begrudgingly. We will feel anxiety in our bodies. Whatever it is that signals to us this does not feel good will turn up. Whereas adapting feels fine. We do it by choice. It serves us.
Q: How can leaders encourage their teams to be authentic?
[Ritu Bhasin]: Yes. Two things on this point, given that I spend so much time with leaders. First, it is so important for leaders to commit to being authentic themselves in the workplace. The reason being, when we show our vulnerabilities, what we are insecure about, we are more transparent in how we lead, this is what unlocks cultures of inclusion, empowerment, agency, and psychological safety. Nowadays, we are talking increasingly about psychological safety in the workplace, especially given how difficult workplace environments are. We know from the research around psych safety when leaders are more transparent, they signal to their team members, ‘you can trust me’ and as a leader, it is vital we show up more authentically to signal to others you can do the same.
During the pandemic experience, with so many more people experiencing diminished mental health as a leader, if I say, ‘I’m really struggling and it’s really hard for me’, what I’m signalling to people on my team is you can say this too, you can share this back with me. That is the first point. The second point and this is important and more nuanced, is that being authentic is a privilege. Not everyone has the ability or luxury to do this. What I mean by that is that when we are a leader within an organisation, we automatically have heightened rank privilege because we are higher up in the organization and if we are not careful how we like to behave, if we push that down on others, our authenticity can become the behavioural yardstick by which we end up measuring performance. As someone who is extroverted, which I am personally, you may have picked some of that up, as someone who is extroverted if I turn around and push my authenticity of extroversion down to my team and expect them to behave in extroverted ways, it will suppress or quash their ability to be more introverted. When we are leading, it is incumbent upon us to be more adaptive.
We be more adaptive; we dance from our authentic self to the adapted self so that we can make more room for others on our team to show up more as their authentic selves. It is like a lot is being said in the leadership space right now about inclusion and allyship. Sometimes as leaders, we need to speak less and listen more, to make room for other voices to be centred. In stepping back, we are stepping forward and creating room for others to feel space. The same thing here. We rein in our authenticity by being more adaptive so others can fill this space with their authenticity.
Q: Does that also require leaders to make sure they have the space to be authentic?
[Ritu Bhasin]: I think part of the problem is that we continue to operate in a global environment, where there is a high emphasis on pushing down our vulnerability and showing our fears and showing our insecurities. We fear vulnerability because we have internalised the incorrect belief that being vulnerable is a negative thing because it is viewed as a weakness. In my view this is a by-product of toxic masculinity because if one looks at leadership globally, it’s mostly across sectors, the senior echelons of almost every industry is dominated by men. Men are in leadership roles, and part of toxic masculinity is to view talking about our feelings and talking about what we are insecure about, what we feel are our challenges, what we fear, what we are vulnerable about, what has happened to us in life. There is a fear around talking about that because it may show weakness.
I’m using air quotes “weakness” because in my view, there are no such thing as weaknesses. These are just attributes we have. We have life experiences. I think that one of the major shifts that needs to happen in how we lead and work globally across sectors, leadership echelons is stop viewing life in binary ways and see that we can be vulnerable and excellent. In fact, vulnerability is excellence on every measure that we look at as it relates to organisational performance and leaders who create teams that are highly productive and engaged. Being authentic, being empathetic, being trustworthy, creating cultures of psychological safety, vulnerability, authenticity, belonging – all of these are deeply rooted in these cultures hence shifting out of the belief that vulnerability is a weakness.
Q: Can authenticity lead to high performance?
[Ritu Bhasin]: Absolutely. We know that workplace cultures, organisational cultures where people are feeling more psychologically safe, they feel like they have heightened agency so choice and control over how they behave, they feel more included, they have a higher sense of belonging. They feel like they can be more of who they are. They can bring their authentic selves to work, do better, they perform better, they give more and there is clearly a direct link to productivity and cultivating a culture of authenticity, vulnerability, courage. It is also just good for us as individuals. It just feels good to feel seen and to belong as an individual leader. We will thrive and we will do better if we feel seen ourselves. So, in the end, it serves everyone.
Q: Where did this journey start for you?
[Ritu Bhasin]: I was born of Punjabi immigrant parents in Canada. They immigrated over 50 years ago and I have the quintessential immigrant family upbringing story – raised in an immigrant run household where my parents came to the country with very little money – we were working class to start, and we are members of the Sikh faith in particular. My father wears a turban, has a beard, my mom has long hair, and they stood out when they newly arrived in Canada in the early 1970s. They were one of a handful of brown immigrants to the country, and they had their own experiences with relentless racism. I also suffered relentless childhood bullying that was rooted in racism and classism, and it was deeply traumatic, and it took me years of self-healing work and therapy and more to be in a place where I finally feel more empowered.
Therefore, from a very young age because of those negative experiences with bullying, cultural confusion, growing up in a household where my parents were still trying to sort out their own identity as immigrants, we have young brown children growing up in white Canada and what does this mean? How Indian are you going to be or how Punjabi are we going to let you be? “Oh, that’s too Punjabi. You should be more Canadian. Be whiter Canadian. Oh, that’s way too white for us.” It was just a constant struggle growing up with this and I from a young age learnt to like push down my differences, like don’t do you because it will attract harm. Then I decided to become a lawyer and join the highest conforming corporate culture out there next to insurance. I put insurance in legal cause I work across sectors in the same bucket of conformity. I found the messages when I was navigating the business world as a young woman of colour in my twenties, it was more nuanced and sophisticated. Like no one ever said to me ‘you know what? You should act more like a man to get ahead’. No one said it directly. It was always subtle and implied in how I was being coached and mentored. It was not until I was in my early thirties that I realized ‘Wow, I don’t know who I am. I literally do not know who I am’. It all goes back to what we were saying earlier about the authentic self – I didn’t know at my core who I was or so I thought, when I had a few transformational things that happened in my life.
When I finally turned to unlocking, who am I? what I realised is I was always there. I just could not access her, that is when the real work of peeling the layers of the onion and then standing in my power to reveal me more and more and more to the world, to myself and to the world happened.
I am now over 12 years of running my business. It’s a global business -the product I’m selling, by the way, the disruption of white male supremacy, isn’t exactly an easy product to sell and building a successful business around that, you can only imagine how challenging it has been. I constantly think to myself, like social media, this currency that we have created, what a house of cards it is, and how inaccurately it captures the excellence that’s needed to create real innovation and create change in our world. I think that there are some people who are online who do such a great job of it, and I’m so inspired by them. It is the reason I’m online, to learn and to engage and collaborate more, there is just so much noise.
I teach people about how to live a more elevated and empowered life, and I’m adversely impacted by the time I spend on social media. I can’t go on Instagram sometimes without feeling anxiety kick in. Just recently I had to stop going on LinkedIn because everyone else looks so much more successful and happier and they are doing so much better and their businesses are thriving and I’m like, ‘I’m a loser’ and so I couldn’t go on LinkedIn.
My friend said the other day, I look at my team and I’m like, I could have birthed all of you. Like I could have literally birthed all of you. I’m writing about this in my second book, which is a book on belonging, which is that we are so caught up as part of Hustle culture, I think you put your finger on it. This is the problem with capitalism and the intersection between capitalism, toxic masculinity, other forms of supremacy like racial supremacy. You put it all together and it’s like the need to impress people we don’t even like by doing things that we don’t even want to, to make them happy over ourselves.
Therefore, that deep self-reflection and being grounded and rooted in who we are as people helps us to shut out the noise. Even for those of us who work hard to shut out the noise, we are not immune and so it is tough. Life is hard. It’s beautiful but it’s hard.