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The dangers of being authentic

Adam Grant, organisational psychologist at Wharton, and author of Originals, is committed to arguing like he’s right and listening like he’s wrong. In this piece, he answers just what it takes to be authentic and how much of it is enough.

Over the past few decades, psychologists have given a revealing survey to more than 23,000 people at work. Here are some of the items—you can answer them true or false:

  • My behaviour is usually an expression of my true inner feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.
  • I would not change my opinions (or the way I do things) in order to please someone else or win their favour.
  • I'm always the person I appear to be.

People who answer true are perceived as highly authentic—they know and express their genuine selves. And a rigorous analysis of all 136 studies shows that these authentic people receive significantly lower performance evaluations and are significantly less likely to get promoted into leadership roles.

I'm not a fan of being inauthentic. Authenticity is a virtue. But just as you can have too little authenticity, you can also have too much.

Let's start here: think of virtues like vitamins. Consuming vitamins is necessary for health—but what happens if you take more vitamin supplements than your body needs? If you take too much Vitamin C, you'll usually just pee it out; no harm done. If you take too much Vitamin D, it can really hurt you: you might end up with kidney problems.

Aristotle believed that virtues were like Vitamin D. Too little of a virtue is bad, but so is too much. He argued that every virtue sits between vices of deficiency and excess. Too little generosity is selfishness; too much generosity becomes self-sacrifice. Too little pride makes us meek; too much leaves us narcissistic. Too little courage makes us cowardly; too much makes us reckless.

A few years ago, psychologist Barry Schwartz and I reviewed evidence that this is true for every known virtue. In life, there’s no such thing as an unmitigated good. Put differently: there is no value or behaviour that’s universally positive. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fundamentalist, not a scholar. To quote sociologist Gary Marx, the key difference is that a scholar asks questions while a fundamentalist gives answers.

Virtues have a Goldilocks flavour: they can be too hot or too cold. The goal is to develop just the right amount of each one.

Virtues have a Goldilocks flavour: they can be too hot or too cold. The goal is to develop just the right amount of each one. That’s true for authenticity. Have too little, and you'll be seen as a faker, a liar, or a jerk. It's bad for your career—not to mention your chances of achieving morality or even decency.

The big question is: what are the costs of being too authentic? So far, social scientists have pointed to at least three possibilities:

(1) Failing to grow. INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra finds that if you’re deeply concerned with being true to yourself, you’re at risk for sticking rigidly to that self instead of evolving and changing.

(2) Over-sharing. In her inspiring book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown has written thoughtfully about how vulnerability is not the same as oversharing. But evidence suggests that oversharing is more likely when authenticity is important to you.

In two studies, psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman found that people who are motivated to express their true selves post more personally revealing and emotional content on Facebook. Other researchers have suggested that people who want to be seen authentically are more likely to share information that jeopardizes their professional relationships. Aiming to be highly authentic leads us to filter less.

(3) Feeling inferior. Studies in companies and controlled experiments show that people are less creative and less helpful when they work for highly authentic leaders who have a strong sense of their values. I’ve watched this happen with highly authentic Fortune 500 CEOs and military generals: their junior colleagues don’t feel courageous or vulnerable enough. They stay silent, even though that’s the exact opposite of what authentic leadership is supposed to promote.

Have you seen other costs of authenticity? How can we manage them?

A sincere proposal

We have a lot more to learn about authenticity. "To ignore the "dark side," researchers Jackie Ford and Nancy Harding write in a critique of authentic leadership, "is at best naïve and at worst ignoring any historical and contextual insight."

Pay attention to how you present yourself, and then strive to be the person you claim to be.

How do we fight the dark side of authenticity? In a New York Times op-ed, I proposed one strategy: aim for sincerity rather than authenticity. Instead of bringing your inner beliefs into the outer world, you start outside-in. Pay attention to how you present yourself, and then strive to be the person you claim to be.

Sincerity is useful because we're not great judges of our own authenticity. Research suggests that leaders who rate themselves as authentic don't have more creative teams. But leaders who are perceived by their teams as sincere do.

But more importantly, I think sincerity is a better way to grow than authenticity. Rather than being content with our authentic selves, we'll push ourselves to become our ideal selves. I think it will lead us to set appropriate boundaries on sharing. We won't be looking to make our existing selves more transparent. We'll be trying to become a higher version of ourselves. And I think it will encourage others to speak up—when we work to live up to our images, we make it safe for others to do the same.

To thine own self be true?

Authenticity advocates love to quote Hamlet: "To thine own self be true."

It's one of Shakespeare's most memorable lines. It's also one of his most misunderstood. Shakespeare was being ironic—the statement belongs to Polonius, who is presented as a fool.

My bet is on Shakespeare. We have many identities, and we can’t be authentic to them all. The best we can do is be sincere in our efforts to earn the values we claim.

This article was first published on the author’s article feed.

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