Could the pursuit of authenticity stall career progression?

Is “be yourself” always the best advice? Research shows that social context is essential for the consequences of authentic behavior. If you want to pursue your true self at the workplace, consider some things first.

Laura Guillén

“Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.” Who hasn’t heard these words of advice before a job interview? 

Authenticity is an increasingly sought-after quality in business, but it’s far from a new phenomenon. For centuries, philosophers from Aristotle to Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger have debated the benefits of authenticity and agreed on its importance.  

Today, cultural fit is one of the most important aspects for both employers and employees when filling potential roles. But when does authenticity become an issue? How can being yourself lead to career success when your behaviors or belief systems are at odds with your equally authentic colleagues? 

Authenticity at work 

To find out, Esade’s professor, Laura Guillén, together with Natalia Karelaia (INSEAD) and Hannes Leroy (Erasmus University) conducted two studies to examine the consequences of authenticity at work. In the first study, they examined 352 computer engineers working on software development projects at a large multinational tech company. The second one focused on 478 senior bachelor students aged between 23 and 27, each of whom was randomly assigned to various consulting projects with external companies. 

The results, published in the journal Human Relations, revealed that social context is essential for understanding when authentic behavior will be rewarded at work. 

When being yourself does not help 

The authentic values of Uber’s ex-CEO Travis Kalanick were considered so loathsome by the company’s board members that he was forced out of the firm he co-founded. Similarly, when Carly Fiorina was CEO of HP, her own authenticity was seen as too flamboyant. There, too, shareholders found her personality was unaligned with the culture at HP and she was forced to resign. 

Being yourself isn’t the best idea if your authentic self is not appreciated in your work

These are extreme examples; reaching CEO level of a globally successful business isn’t achievable by pretending to be someone you’re not. But being truly yourself isn’t always the best idea, if your authentic self is not appreciated by others in your work context. Authenticity is important, yes, but it needs to be contextualized.  

Person-Organization alignment 

Organizational culture exists on many levels and refers to behavioral norms, beliefs and core values. When employees identify strongly with the organizational culture, they trust their colleagues, and are more likely to act in agreement with collective interests. 

It then follows that when employees identify with their organizations, authentic behavior is consistent with what is appreciated in the organization and is an overt manifestation of how similar the individual is to other members of the organization. Because people like to be surrounded by similar-others (i.e., the well-established homophily effect), conflicts reduce and relationships are freed up from tension and disputes. Via conflict reduction, authentic behavior improves performance. 

In contrast, when employees do not identify with their organizations, their authentic behavior causes conflict with personal relationships, which subsequently has a negative impact on performance. The authenticity that is encouraged by employers only pays off when it’s aligned with their culture

Authenticity at work only pays off when workers are aligned with the organizational culture

For employers keen to stay true to their organizational values, this doesn’t necessarily mean discounting or dismissing experienced team members who don’t fit in. If those values are too narrow, the pool of people who identify with them is limited — and successful organizations need a diverse range of voices and ideas

Rather than singling out those with opposing views, embracing individuality and valuing differences may present a more beneficial approach. 

The significance of social status 

The second study carried out by Prof. Guillén and her colleagues was run in an educational setting. Senior bachelor students were asked how well they identified with the members of the teams they worked alongside during their projects. Their team members rated the participants on relationship conflict, task performance and agreeableness — the latter to reflect how well individuals “get along with others in a pleasant, satisfying relationship.”  

This second study replicated the findings of the first study in that the authentic behavior of the students who identified strongly with the values of their teams had lower levels of conflict. Those who scored highly on agreeableness also had lower levels of conflict and more positive task performance. 

When roles are less structured, differences are more tolerated

However, for students whose authentic behavior did not reflect the values of their team members, there was little impact on performance. Although their authenticity was not aligned with the values of the workplace, it did not result in any social penalty from their teams.  

These findings suggest that when roles are less structured, and those performing them have limited control over their own behaviors, differences are more tolerated. 

Be yourself — but with limits 

In a professional setting, authenticity and organizational values can’t be considered independently. Social context moderates the consequences of authentic behavior in terms of interpersonal conflicts and performance. Being true to your values is an advantage when those values are aligned with your social context.  

In an educational setting, younger adults in recently formed teams and less structured roles may also find they face fewer, if any, consequences for displaying opposing views. For low identifiers, behaving authentically did not result in any social penalty from their teams.  

The difference in results in both studies might be because the longer socialization in the organizational setting might increase the importance of identification, and dissimilarity with others might be more prominent and thus more likely to penalize. Also, it might signal that organizations might have a narrower set of values or that their range of acceptable behaviors is smaller, and thus “authentic deviance” may be more likely to incur social penalties.  

So, is “be yourself” a good advice? For established professionals, this research shows that “being yourself” isn’t necessarily the best advice. Ancient philosophers and today’s employers may agree on the importance of authenticity. But pursuing it at all costs may not be the best career choice. 

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