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Be Yourself at Work? Really???

The best workers bring their whole selves to work? It's way more complicated than that, say experts.
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Look at lists of the most in-demand employers and what common threads do you see? Often times 'authenticity' is cited. These are places where workers can be themselves. Researchers agree time and again -- bringing your whole self to the office boosts motivation and performance. Social media has only increased our mania for revealing ourselves--quirks and all--in personal as well as professional settings.

But is this popular idea that top performers are always true to their inner selves actually true? Not according to a pair of fascinating recent articles looking at the empirical evidence around authenticity and work.

Do Authentic People Really Get Ahead?

The first looks at the question of who actually gets ahead. We love to think that being authentic is a surefire route to success, but is that belief backed up by data? Not really, reports an INSEAD Knowledge article by professor Michael Jarrett.

When researchers look at who actually ends up successful, what they find is folks who are extremely careful in their self presentation, people who cultivate particular demeanors for particular settings. Take social media, for instance. Authenticity is an oft-cited prerequisite for success, but a highly cited study by Ajay Mehra, Martin Kilduff and Daniel Brass, found that "'chameleon-like high self-monitors' were more likely than true-to-themselves 'low self-monitors' to occupy central positions in social networks," according to Jarrett.

And it's not just online that "people who are high on self-monitoring, a personality preference defined as 'active construction of public selves to achieve social ends,'" seem to flourish. We've all heard the mantra 'fake it 'til you make it' and science actually backs this advice up. Those who act more confident than they really are more likely to succeed, research, while "people who present themselves as warm and competent are more likely to be liked and conferred higher levels of social status," the INSEAD piece reports.

Do We Really Want to Be Authentic?

A separate but related question is not whether being authentic at work is really a recipe for success, but whether in our heart of hearts most of us actually want to show off our warts-and-all, true selves at our jobs. On the HBR blogs Andrea Ovens recently dug into this meaty issue.

Again, it appears that things are more complicated than our authenticity-worshipping culture might suggest. When Harvard researchers went looking for actual, real life companies where everyone was totally themselves, "companies that pursued competitive advantage by developing every person to his or her fullest potential," how many such organizations did they find?

Of the millions and millions of companies out there,  a whopping two that had more than 100 employees. That's a startling number in itself, but what might be even more eye-opening is what happened when the professors told people about the all-revealing policies at these firms, one of which was an investment firm called Bridgewater Associates.

"So how many of you would like to work at Bridgewater?" one professor asked a group she had just spoken to in-depth about the company. "Fewer than five hands went up in a class of 80. 'Why not?' she asked. One young woman who'd been an active and impressive contributor to the conversation answered: 'I want people at work to think I'm better than I am; I don't want them to see how I really am!'" Ovens repors.

A Middle Way

The truth, as suggested by this anecdote and the paucity of real-life companies that actually offer a warts-and-all work environment is that while people want the freedom to express their quirks and positive attributes at work, they're unwilling to pay the cost of also revealing their weaknesses and foibles. Authenticity is good, in other words, as long as you can only show the world your good bits.

A more realistic understanding of authenticity at work might not be simply 'bring your whole self to the office' but a more nuanced balancing act. No one wants to see employees covering up their essential beliefs or wasting time hiding harmless bits of weirdness, but as Jarrett points out, quoting Shakespeare, it is worth keeping in mind that "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

"Being yourself, lauding naive authenticity, is a potential recipe for disaster (in the worst case) and perhaps some disappointment," he concludes. Instead, he suggests, we "act from the position of situated authenticity, which means think about the context and others, not just you."

Do you think we sometimes kid ourselves when it come to authenticity at work?

 

Last updated: Jul 7, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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