Oprah Winfrey and Melinda Gates both offered the same career advice recently: Be yourself.
"Fitting in is overrated," Gates told young strivers. Oprah shared how she left 60 Minutes because she couldn't be herself within the dry, detached format of the storied news program. The implicit message: You'll get further by being your authentic self.
The pros and cons of authenticity at work
There's plenty of reason to suspect these two super achievers are on to something. Research suggests that hiding your true self at work is exhausting and therefore negatively impacts your performance. Other studies say showing vulnerability helps you build relationships and get ahead. Still others show those pitching themselves or their ideas do better, the more honest and open they are.
But does that mean you should go all in on authenticity, sharing your every quirk and emotion for all the office to see? Not necessarily, writes author and star Wharton professor Adam Grant in a recent New York Times piece. He agrees that authenticity can be great, but offers two important caveats.
Consider your status. The sad truth is that showing vulnerabilities and admitting weaknesses goes a lot better for those who already have high status. When a star performer jokes about his unreliable memory, it's cute. When an unproven intern does it, it might cost her an offer of a full-time position. "Sadly, experiments show that when leaders make self-deprecating jokes, they're judged as more capable if they're men and less capable if they're women," Grant also notes. (Here's more on that incredibly annoying research.)
Don't be a narcissist. Sharing your emotions and fears can be endearing, but if you do it without a thought to the impact of these disclosures on others, it can also make you a narcissist. Before opting for authenticity, have a think about how your comment is likely to affect the listener. "Authenticity without empathy is selfish," cautions Grant. "Of course we should be true to our values, but one of those values should probably be caring about others."
These cautions don't add up to a case against authenticity at work. Grant's piece is instead a helpful corrective to blind celebration of being yourself. Yes, honesty is generally the best policy. But as with much else in life, the middle way is best. Be sure to balance your openness with the needs, expectations, and yes, sadly even the biases of your audience.