Monday, 6 June 2016

Ambitions and Authenticity: Professor Grant Debates Professor Brown

Up until he brought up the gender issue in his New York Times opinion-editorial, Professor Adam Grant was making a very logical argument about the pitfalls of authenticity or, as the two learned professors are putting it, “being yourself.”  According to my understanding of the premise of his argument, being oneself may be fraught with danger.  He cites the examples of a man who decided to be authentic by: (1) verbally expressing his heart’s desires to have a sexual relationship with a colleague at work; (2) followed by similarly telling the nanny of his kids the ache in his heart to have the nanny as his mistress, (3) telling the child of a friend that that child’s pet beetle was dead rather than simply sleeping as the poor kid had innocently believed, and (4) of course the caper was the man letting his wife’s parents know that their conversation was boring.  Grant leaves the reader to envision the inglorious results of what is supposed to be the manifestations of authenticity.

Professor Grant invokes these examples in an attempt to lay bare the flaws of one being himself or herself.  Perhaps these examples capture what may be considered authenticity in some circles.  Be that as it may, it does strike me more like a case of a lack of verbal tact, if not downright insensitivity, than it is about being authentic.  Some may very well argue that the man cited by Grant actually lacked sound judgement as opposed to the cited man’s apparent peculiar manners embodying authenticity.  One can be authentic without coming across as uncouth or crass.  If the co-worker who was the object of carnal desires, likewise the nanny, the child ignorantly holding the dead pet insect in the innocence of youth, or the parents-in-law reacted in anger, responded in puzzlement or shock, it was not because of the man’s authenticity but the crudity of his delivery of his messages.  In my opinion, Grant cited what comes across as a rather poor example to put his point across.

Nonetheless, his point was fairly simple.  There are instances under which authenticity can cause more damage than it can bring forth a boon.  I disagree with Grant on the simple ground that he seems to mistake poor tact or unrefined manners for authenticity.  That is my first point of disagreement with his opinion as stated in the New York Times column that drew the fury and justifiable retort of Professor Brené Brown.

Secondly, I was shocked when he contrived to make this issue a theatre of struggles between genders based on what is seemingly very spurious supporting evidence.  He says, and I quote: “How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait called self-monitoring.  If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly.  You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone.”  I see in this statement a euphemism for patronage, but one couched in professorially smart words.  When one is constantly scanning one’s surroundings in search of upward mobility in one’s career or social status as the primary objective, one of the many paths to that goal may easily involve the act of groveling and fawning at the feet of the would-be benefactors or patrons.  Moreover, anyone who is seen to be a stumbling block to that aim may fall victim to the ambitious ladder climber.  These two factors, resorting to as low as the deceitful stratagem of currying favour and walking over dead bodies, metaphorically speaking, are what make patronage very damaging.  Left to run amok, patronage can easily morph into a figurative cancer.

If Grant is arguing in favour of a patron-client arrangement because of its salutary results, an arrangement that may very well eschew genuine and prudent acts of authenticity, I have no choice but to state that I disagree with him.  I clearly hope that I am wrong in my understanding of his argument.  History teaches us that most, if not all, cases of recorded patronage are invariably associated with a structurally weak social dispensation whose collapse may be sudden and very precipitous and possibly just as calamitous.

What leaves me in a condition of bafflement follows what he defines to be the diametric opposite of the “personality trait called self-monitoring.”  What he calls “low self-monitor” personalities typically tend to, let me quote him verbatim here, if I may; “criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies.”  Of course he points out that being conscientious, the low self-monitors get rewards which may be unfavourably disproportionate with their professional and, I presume moral investments, much unlike their polar opposites who will resort to make it to the top by any means necessary.  Is this not the very manifestation of a patronage system, if I may openly wonder?  Rewarding deceit, or inauthenticity, is doubly damaging in that it concomitantly punishes those who seek the path paved by the ethos that says that working hard and exercising due diligence will be duly rewarded.  Surely, Grant has to be conscious of this form of social injustice.  I am doubtful he brooks it.  That is number three.

Fourthly, that he apparently acquiesces to it is evident when he attempts to conflate the gender divide with the asymmetric reward arrangement of his euphemistically described patronage system.  He writes; “women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men.”  To his credit, and we ought to give credit where it is earnt, he cites the basis of his argument.  This is all well and good.  Unfortunately, the conclusions of the findings in the paper that Grant cites lack the firmness of conviction that is evident in his above-quoted statement.

In a paper published in the J Applied Psychology Volume 87(2), page 390 to page 401 (April of 2002), author Day and co-workers investigated self-monitoring personalities in a professional population sample of 23,191.  According to their construed findings, “[s]ample-weighted mean differences favoring male respondents were also noted, suggesting that the sex-related effects for self-monitoring may partially explain noted disparities between men and women at higher organizational levels (i.e., the glass ceiling).”  This is precisely how they surmise their findings.  The summary has clear caveats.  The researchers clearly see enough room to explain the noted disparities between the genders.  Simply put, there is more than an element of doubt in their conclusions much unlike the seemingly etched-in-stone statement by Grant, one interestingly based on the foregoing paper.  If Professor Brené Brown takes umbrage with this aspect of Professor Grant’s reading of the findings of Day et al., she clearly has my empathy.

I must confess that Grant and readers of my ilk may possibly be experiencing what Robert F. Brands characterized as the Rashomon Effect in his book Robert’s Rules of Innovation II.  It is in Akira Kurosawa movie, a great and very edifying movie, in which we are reminded that witnesses to a single event do not necessarily give identical accounts of the same event.  Perspective and, I presume, the state of mind do exert some considerable influence on the witness's narration of the event.

All in all, I find this exchange to be potentially help, if it can be shorn of what are ostensibly personal confrontations.  It will be a pity if such an edifying exchange ends up degenerating into a match in which two well-meaning members of a highly esteemed academic community spit venomous saliva in each other’s faces.