“Just be yourself” might not be the best advice

People talk a lot about the importance of always being yourself, at work and in personal environments. “The hype these days is that authenticity is great. You’re advised to just be yourself, and then everything will work out fine. I was intrigued. Is that true? Being yourself and authentic has a lot of positive effects, but the reality is much more complex. Authenticity can be a recipe for disaster as it is a very messy and complex topic,” says Dr Hannes Leroy from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), who is co-author of an Academy of Management Annals article entitled Being your true self at work: integrating the fragmented research on authenticity in organizations. Dr Hannes Leroy and his co-authors conclude that authenticity is not equally beneficial for everybody in every setting.

Video content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikq_RZHqCco

Over various studies the authors have found that the extent to which people feel authentic is negatively correlated with the extent that others perceive a person as authentic. Another potential disaster is when there’s a mismatch between your true self and the prevailing norms at your work.

Authenticity as the Holy Grail

Research supports that authenticity can lead to psychological benefits, boosting self-esteem, and making people feel happier and more energised at work. The authors analysed hundreds of psychological and management research articles on authenticity published since the late 1990s. In describing the recent ‘surge of public interest in authenticity’, the authors also pointed out that the belief that people should be authentic has been around for thousands of years, promoted by philosophers from Socrates to Jean-Paul Sartre, and psychologists such as Abraham Maslow.

For some people, authenticity can also improve professional image, career outcomes, and effectiveness as leaders. “People get excited when they meet people who seem ‘real.’ Or when they have a leader who strikes them as authentic and straightforward. We increasingly expect people also to be authentic at work, and use authenticity as a standard by which we measure people,” Dr Leroy explains. The researchers wondered if it is only positive when it comes to authenticity.

Does authenticity always play out well at work?

When there’s a mismatch between your true self and the prevailing norms, bringing your whole self to work can be difficult and potentially have negative consequences for your image and career. For example: a retail clerk whose store expects employees to provide ‘service with a smile’, but who begins the work day feeling and looking sad.

“For somebody who has socially valued identities and whose authentic self just happens to fit well with what the organisation’s values, authenticity may be a win-win situation. It might seem very natural for that person to encourage other people to also be themselves, because that person’s experiences being authentic are all good. But it’s not that easy for a lot of people,” Leroy says.

Felt and perceived authenticity

Felt and perceived authenticity are disconnected and this is what the problem gives, especially at the workplace where it is all about perceptions. Dr Leroy explains, “many trainings on leadership are about finding your true self: who are you, what are your values, be true to yourself.”

He says this feeling of being authentic will boost people’s self-esteem but at the same time is a recipe for disaster. “The feeling of being authentic will make you perceived as even less authentic, with all its negative consequences. Therefore trainings on authenticity should make a shift from the more ‘clarify your own values’ to learn more about ‘how your words and deeds are interpreted by others’ and how you can influence your perceived authenticity. Our research even indicated that people with political skills are better at this.”

How to tackle the challenges of authenticity

Leroy and the co-writers hope that people become more aware of the challenges and the tensions around authenticity faced by a large number of people. “Sensitive leaders could create environments where people don’t have to pay those costs to be authentic,” Leroy says.

Dr Leroy shares three pieces of advise that people can use daily to increase both their felt and perceived authenticity:

  1. Be careful with calling yourself authentic since feeling authentic yourself negatively correlates with perceived authenticity.
  2. If you make an important decision in your life, especially work-related, always take three truths into account that determine your authenticity: your personal truth (your personal values and how you look at the world), the truth of your audience (look at who you are addressing to, who are you speaking to, what are they expecting from you), and the truth of the context in which you operate in (the organisation or society in which you are embedded).
  3. It is important to be better in authenticity as it does influence your well-being, chances to get promoted or getting that job. It’s complex and hard and appropriate training is needed. Find yourself a training which is not only about feeling authentic, which also is very important, but one who also makes the bridge to perceived authenticity.

Learn and read more on Leadership within RSM:

Nordic Expedition: no place to hide and here you will discover the true you but also get tools and personal coaching to translate that real you back to the real world.

Power of Presence: two-day programme to increases your awareness of your non-verbal self-presentation, and teach you how to use your strong features, allowing your communication and interaction with others to have more impact.

Persuasive Leadership: how can you maintain your authenticity in an essential inauthentic and political landscape, here you find ways to stay authentic while others get this as well.

I WILL SPEECH: here we work on the core principle of becoming a force for positive change and build a narrative around how you lead in life that is unique to you and thus based on your life story.  We don’t stop there but ultimately end with a speech to make sure others understand that authenticity.

Read the article Being your true self at work: integrating the fragmented research on authenticity in organizations by Dr Sandra E. Cha of Brandeis University; Dr Patricia Faison Hewlin of McGill University; Dr Laura Morgan Roberts of Georgetown University: Dr Brooke Buckman of Florida International University: Dr Hannes Leroy of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University; Dr Erica Steckler of the University of Massachusetts Lowell; Dr Kathryn Ostermeier of Bryant University; and Dr Danielle Cooper of the University of North Texas in Academy of Management Annals.

Listen to Dr Hannes Leroy’s podcast: “Too much authenticity”.

For more information about RSM or this article, please contact Irene Bosman, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at bosman@rsm.nl.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

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