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“Just be yourself” might not be the best advice

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We've always been told to discover our true selves and be authentic to it. Yet, Hannes Leroy, Associate Professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) (and co-author of Being Your True Self at Work: Integrating the Fragmented Research on Authenticity in Organizations), shares why “feeling more authentic” or “discovering your true self” may be a recipe for disaster.

People talk a lot about the importance of always being yourself at work. 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 being 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. The research conducted with my co-authors concluded that authenticity is not equally beneficial for everybody in every setting.

Authenticity as the Holy Grail 

Research supports that authenticity can lead to psychological benefits, including boosting self-esteem, and making people feel happier and more energised at work. 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 appears authentic and straightforward.

Does authenticity always play out well at work?  

For somebody who has socially valued identities and whose authentic self just happens to fit well with 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.

Felt and perceived authenticity 

Over various studies we have found that the extent to which people feel authentic is negatively correlated with the extent that others perceive a person as authentic. There are a host of reasons for this. Claiming you are authentic is like claiming you are moral and it gives others – who may state ‘so you think you are better than me?’ – the excuse to monitor your every move for any inconsistencies between your words and your actions. And when such an inconsistency does arrive (e.g., you claim care about the environment l but you decided to fly go on holiday you will likely say ‘well you have to look at the situation here’ but others will say that you lack authenticity – even if your behaviour is otherwise consistent (something called fundamental attribution error).

And that’s just where it starts, there are many perceptual filters that disconnect felt from perceived authenticity.  And this is problematic because most developmental programs these days are just about “feeling more authentic” or “discovering your true self” – but that may be a recipe for disaster when it is disconnected from being perceived as authentic.

How to tackle the challenges of authenticity to become a better leader 

Firstly I advise managers to learn about their true self, know your own strengths and darker sides only then people can be true to their own values. Indeed, you can’t be true to yourself if you don’t know yourself. Now interestingly, getting to know all those different facets of the self can be challenging and we see that participants typically get a dip in their well-being the first two days of training but afterwards, with more clarity of self, we see higher and more importantly stable well-being over time.

Next you need to learn about others’ perceptions, what is the driver of others perception of authenticity. Here we go over all the perceptual filters that your audience may have when they judge you as authentic. And there is no escaping perceptions of authenticity – especially when you are in a leading position your perceived authenticity matters for effective leadership but also for sales, negotiations, customer satisfaction and trust. Many of these things matter for effective leadership.

The last and most important step is to connect felt authenticity and perceived authenticity. Be authentic and at the same time learn the political skills so that your employees also perceive you as authentic.

Photo / iStock

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