Originally published on Forbes.com.
As 1991 progressed and their album Nevermind gained popularity, Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain found himself staring down incredulously at audiences made up of jocks and metal kids, the kind of kids who used to bully him in high school. He was appalled at being considered “theirs.” By 1992, he would shout at them disdainfully, “All right! Frat rock!” The band would sometimes refuse to play its hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at live shows. “It’s almost an embarrassment to play it,” Cobain told Rolling Stone magazine.
Nirvana was a band that had started out as a group of outsiders, punk-rockers railing against the mainstream. But with Nevermind, they weren’t edgy anymore. Their sound got WhitneyHoustonified, polished until it gleamed.
Authenticity is when you feel alignment between who you are inside – your feelings, thoughts, and values – and how you manifest yourself to the outside world. It is the sense of acting like “the real you.” The opposite of authenticity is when you experience a mismatch between how other people see you and how you see yourself.
Authenticity and the maintenance of a sense of true self is a basic need. Studies show that when people perceive themselves to be living authentically, they are happier, less anxious, and less stressed than people who feel inauthentic.
Many of us struggle to feel authentic at work. Jobs come with role scripts and external expectations that dictate how we are supposed to act. Even priests struggle with authenticity. “If I am with a number of parishioners, they want to subtly remind me all the time that I am a priest,” says a participant in a study. But the parishioners, adds another, “have no access to the internal part of me.” The weight of being a priest means that sometimes they can’t do something they want to – like use the F word or buy comic books – because it’s not what other people expect of them.
Service jobs also require people to act out service scripts and to control their true emotions. Customers don’t want to know that their flight attendant (or pilot for that matter) is having a bad day or thinks their children are obnoxious. So the service providers have to pretend otherwise. They have to conform to the expectations of others.
But people don’t like to feel inauthentic. When they do, they try to reduce the dissonance they feel between how they see themselves and how others see them. One way to do this is to separate your public and private identities. You distance yourself from your role. When not performing, for example, shock rocker Alice Cooper talks about the character he plays onstage in the third person. In his private life, Alice Cooper is a devoted husband to his wife of 38 years, plays golf, and goes to church. He said, “The only way I could survive was to play Alice Cooper, was to become him at night on stage and then leave him there so that I can have my own life.
A second approach is to change who you are so it becomes more like the character you play in your job. This is the integration approach. Your public role comes to define who you are at all times. As this priest said, “To me it is not important whether they know or don’t know… whether I am in costume or out of costume. It is a fundamental identity to who I am.” But integration does not work for every person or every job.
That’s what Nirvana seemed to be doing with their album In Utero, which is being re-released in a special multi-format reissue on September 24th. Nirvana took a strategic and proactive approach to managing their image so that it aligned with their own self-perception as a punk band. Even if it meant going against their record label’s expectations.
Jack Endino, who had produced Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, told writer Gillian Gaar, “It was obvious the record company was going to want NevermindVersion 2, and the band was very obviously not going to make that. I mean, they said to everyone who would listen that they wanted to make a really aggressive punk rock album.”
The band got their way. In Utero is harsh and abrasive. There is little double tracking on the vocals and few studio effects. It is a better reflection of their musical roots than Nevermind and sounds like Nirvana did when they played live shows. The album was true to their vision and identity as a punk rock band.
Nirvana’s approach of proactively aligning how others saw them with how they saw themselves offers three key lessons for increasing authenticity at work. First, people feel more authentic when they identify with their customers or audience. Nirvana wanted to write an album for their punk-rock peers, and doing so made them feel authentic. A recent study found that the same holds for other kinds of jobs. The more people identify with their customers, the more authentic they feel, and the better service they provide. For example, a waitress felt more authentic when serving a family that reminded her of her own family. “I felt as if friends were sitting in front of me… I didn’t have to pretend to be nice, I could be myself,” she said.
A second lesson is that feeling authentic comes from believing in your product. Another finding of the service study was that when people believed in the quality of the product or service they provide, they felt more authentic. For example, “I really believed that I was making him a good offer and convinced him to take the deal with the best of intentions. I felt that if I had been in his place I would have certainly taken the deal. The conversation was sincere.”