"Fitting in is overrated," Melinda Gates recently replied when asked for her biggest piece of advice for young women.
"I spent my first few years at my first job out of college doing everything I could to make myself more like the people around me. It didn't bring out the best in me," she continued. "Seek out people and environments that empower you to be nothing but yourself."
Oprah Winfrey agrees. She quit storied news program 60 Minutes because its reserved tone clashed with her own more emotional style.
But let's be honest, it's scary to pass on opportunities just because they don't align with your personality or values. It's intimidating to stand out in a particular office culture. And plenty of people will tell you the way to get ahead is to change yourself to meet the expectations of others. Being yourself at work is hard.
To be brave enough to follow this advice you need all the support you can get. Which is why new research out of Harvard is so valuable. It's basically scientific confirmation that Oprah and Gates are right.
Increase your odds of success by a factor of three.
The series of studies by Harvard's Francesca Gino and colleagues all followed the same basic template: ask volunteers to either imagine or actually participate in a professional interaction, with some just being themselves and some trying to make a good impression by anticipating the other party's desires. Then the researchers compared who impressed the most in the activity.
All the experiments pointed in the same direction. While people think catering to others will make people like them more, the truth is authenticity is actually a more effective way to impress. That's because pretending to be something you're not is exhausting and makes you look like a phony. Also, we're lousy at guessing what other people actually want.
One particular study illustrates this well and will be of particular interest to business owners. As Gino explains in a write-up of her results for HBR, the researchers asked 166 entrepreneurs to pitch an early-stage business idea to a panel of angel investors, who then selected 10 semifinalists for a later round of pitching. After everyone presented, Gino's team polled the entrepreneurs about their approach to wooing the investment.
"We found that when [entrepreneurs] were genuine in their pitches, they were more than three times as likely to be chosen as semifinalists than when they tried to cater to the judges," Gino reports. Being yourself makes you three times more likely to be successful than trying to cater to what you think the other person wants to hear.
That's a pretty huge payoff for authenticity. It might even be enough to get you over your jitters about following Oprah and Gates advice.