Guest Post by Dr Isobel O’Neil - Thoughts on the Role of Authenticity in Careers Transitions

Published: 5th Oct 2011 in Ethical Business

Welcome to my guest blog! Let me introduce myself, I’m Dr Isobel O’Neil a lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Nottingham University Business School. You might be wondering what I’m doing hijacking Make Hay’s blog? Well, Vicky was kind enough to take part as a case study for my research and invited me to share this with you all. I happily accepted as too often PhDs just sit on shelves getting dusty! So in this, the first of two blog entries, I’ll be outlining the background to my research. In a few weeks time, I’ll be sharing some of the key findings and the implications of these findings with you.

The story begins back in late 2006, when I was in the early stages of designing my PhD research. Being a bit of a greenie, I wanted to bring this into my scholarly endeavours so I enrolled on the PhD with the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR) at Nottingham University and drew up my plan to explore environmental sustainability and start-up business.

Subsequently I found myself scanning the internet for recently established, UK-based ethical and environmentally sustainable businesses to take part in the research. Make Hay caught my attention, not least as they seemed pretty much the only such start-up in my near vicinity! Without delving into too much academic jargon, I began to interviews founders with the joint aim of (1) understanding what motivates such business founders to embark upon setting up this kind of business, and (2) determining the key sources of tension they encountered as they introduced new ethical and sustainable practices to their respective sectors.

Due to time and space restraints, I’ll focus on talking about the first aim - motivations. This seems even more relevant for these pages as it was during my first interview with Vicky from Make Hay that a concept which ended up anchoring my research – authenticity – first captured my interest. Vicky had spoken with passion about the decision to cement their own values and principles firmly in the very essence of Make Hay; she hoped it would be a route towards more authentic careers/lives. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of authenticity, it can be understood as the pursuit of one’s inner voice to live one’s life in a way true to oneself (Taylor, 1991 ). In terms of careers, authenticity is about working in a way is consistent with your inner values. However, it is not simply about satisfying yourself alone but authenticity demands consideration of our external responsibilities to other people and our surrounding natural/ social environment.

With other interviewees apparently also searching for greater authenticity, I sought insights into whether other academics had explored the role of pursuing one’s authenticity as a driver for entrepreneurship. Surprising, there was very little that explicitly linked the pursuit of authenticity with entrepreneurship. Passion, determination, self-efficacy, creativity - these all offered insights into the drive to launch one’s own business. But the role of authenticity? I found had not been adequately discussed.
Whilst not being directly applicable, existing work did turn up some interesting insights that I’d like to share with you. Firstly an inspiring piece tracing the career of the Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar, demonstrated that a sense of being authentic had characterised his career path: “Experience has taught me that the more honest and personal my work is, the more successful I am” . So authenticity has been recognised as a motivation for those with untraditional careers, such as those in the creative industries. However, even here restrictions on bringing one’s authenticity to life through one’s work exist. For example, this research showed that in the creative industries the journey to being able to truly portray oneself in one’s work has to be understood as an enduring struggle.  A struggle which is gradually overcome as someone, such as Almodóvar, becomes more established and is hence freer to express their own ‘voice’ as they see fit.

Secondly, a body of research on authenticity has focused on the experiences of individuals employed in constraining workplaces such as call centres and in well-established professional roles such as management consultants. The focus of this research has been on an emerging trend for organizations to encourage displays of an authentic self in the workplace as a means to alleviate the mundane nature of the work. However, the ability to portray oneself by dressing as one likes or by a blurring of the boundaries between one’s social life and the workplace only allows for a superficial portrayal of authenticity. In this work there have been discussions on the sense of self-alienation experienced by some employees, such as junior management consultants . Where a ‘corporate culture’ penetrates all aspects of these consultants’ lives, it was found not only that some experienced an inability to ‘be themselves’ but also that they were out of touch with their inner voice almost entirely. The demands of work had led the loss of a sense of authenticity. I believe this is worrying as it sends a signal that those within certain job roles would be less able and indeed willing, to challenges the superficial nature of some corporations’ values. Such a scenario seems gloomy if we are to rely on values-driven and inspired employees to initiate and deliver progressive social and/ or environmental activities through, for example, genuine CSR programmes.

To summarise the background to my research it can be said that our understanding of authenticity as a career driver (1) had been concerned with the constraints that working life places on being able to portray a sense of your true self, and (2) had given little consideration to the activities of individuals to remove some of these constraints by leaving a prior role/ workplace. Vicky at Make Hay and my other research participants had set me on a path to try to better understand authenticity’s role in driving people’s careers transitions to self-employment and to running their own businesses. I will share some of my insights with you in part two of this blog.


1) Taylor, C. (1991). The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2) Pedro Almodóvar in Mata, 2003, p. 38, see Svejenova, S. (2005). ‘The path with the heart: Creating the authentic career’. Journal of Management Studies, 42, 947-974.
3) See Costas, J. and Fleming, P. (2009). ‘Beyond dis-identification: A discursive approach to self-alienation in contemporary organizations’. Human Relations , 62, 353-378.

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