I love it when conversations begin on Twitter about topics that leave you thinking long after you log out. The other day, Lynn Morton, Cynthia D’Amour and I had a brief exchange about authenticity and how to embed it in an association’s culture. The concept of authenticity is all over the web these days as it’s a required element for social media engagement. This topic especially interests me as I want to work for an organization whose culture breathes authenticity.

But how can I tell if an organization really walks the walk of authenticity? And what does that really mean? Bear with me as I wrestle with this concept.

To me, it means being your true self — communicating and behaving honestly. As the walls between my personal and professional lives have fallen down, it’s been a bit liberating. I don’t have a work personality and an at-home personality, they’re essentially the same – what you see is what you get. Luckily I don’t have any wacky personal foibles to hide. I also understand that many topics are not appropriate for the office — the old “no sex, politics and religion at the dinner table” principle. Does your organization have multiple personality disorder? Does it have different faces depending on the audience, or does it have an honest and consistent nature?

Authenticity often requires self-reflection and review. Am I being honest? Is this really what I think? What are my motives here? Am I sucking up? Am I being defensive? When we’re authentic we learn to listen to criticism and dissent and not overlook the uncomfortable. We face up to reality. This is not always easy, but the right thing to do usually isn’t.

Does your organization go through this process? Is it listening to all its constituent voices, including those that usually go unheard or those that challenge the party line? Has it examined its programs, products and services to determine their true value to members or customers, or is it doing what it’s always done because that’s what you do? Are you dealing with looming challenges and threats, or putting them off by focusing on immediate crises? Authenticity means understanding the real value of your membership for each prospect or member, not relying on the bullet points and marketing copy you’ve used forever.

How does authenticity work with public relations and advocacy? It’s often risky to show your true hand, the other side could take advantage. What about spin and messaging? Our political world is based on spin. How can an association not do that? Yet David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, recently said nothing is more powerful than authenticity, and people have a very sensitive bullshit meter. Which side does your association come down on?

How do you tell an authentic association (or any type of organization) from one that isn’t? I’m still working on a complete answer but here are some ideas:

  • Do they have lots of member evangelists? Or membership testimonials that sound real, not like the brochure?
  • Do they have wide diverse support within their industry and with the public?
  • Are there real personalities with distinct voices speaking on behalf of the association? Is that really the CEO who’s writing the CEO Corner?
  • Do they listen and engage with their members and the public? Or is it only one-way communication?
  • Do they tolerate dissent? Are there negative comments on their blog or in their letters to the editor?
  • Can you tell if their staff is engaged and involved in guiding the association to success, not only the executives, but directors, managers and others?
  • Are meetings accessible to all or are there barriers (financial, technological, procedural) to participation?
  • Are meetings a rubber-stamp process or is there healthy discussion?
  • Does the leadership reflect the membership (or industry) in age, race, sex, etc.? Is leadership stagnant – the old boys club?

This is all very fuzzy, I admit. What do you think are signs of authenticity in an association?