Yes, yes, we know: “Be yourself.” But this tired advice is much easier said than done—especially in the workplace, where we strive to be seen as unflappable superheroes with a singular focus on our jobs.
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Indeed, many people are (understandably) hesitant to expose their emotions, fears, and desires to their colleagues, bosses, employees, or customers. “They think that if they are truly themselves, people won’t accept it,” says Brenda Booth, a clinical professor of management at Kellogg.
Yet being authentic at work is likely a risk worth taking.
Booth and fellow Kellogg faculty members make a powerful case for authenticity in the workplace, explaining how it can make workers more ethical, leaders more confident, and customer relationships stronger.
They also share concrete steps you can take to be yourself—from developing an authentic leadership style, to discovering your deeper purpose.
Everyone has multiple identities that they trot out depending on the social context—say, the business persona at work, the friend persona at book club, and the parent persona at bedtime.
Is there any harm in compartmentalizing those disparate identities? Yes, according to Maryam Kouchaki, whose research suggests that people are more likely to engage in unethical behavior when they separate their personal and business lives.
In one experiment, Kouchaki and colleagues found that priming individuals to see their work and home identities as distinct led them to harbor more feelings of inauthenticity, such as “I am unsure of what my ‘real’ feelings are.”
And those inauthentic feelings had consequences. In a follow-up experiment, participants who were primed to separate their identities cheated significantly more often in a coin-toss game than those who were primed to integrate their identities.
“It’s in an organization’s interest to help people feel more control over and cohesion in their identity.”
— Maryam Kouchaki
The researchers then tested whether the same results hold in the real world. They queried 150 actual employee-manager pairs, and found that when employees reported feeling like their different identities were not integrated, they were more frequently caught by their bosses engaging in bad behaviors (like fudging expense reports or mistreating coworkers).
Managers looking to encourage good behavior should take note, says Kouchaki, an associate professor of management and organizations. “It’s in an organization’s interest to help people feel more control over and cohesion in their identity.”
One task that can often feel inauthentic: building your “personal brand.”
“People worry that selling themselves means giving a false impression,” says clinical associate professor Suzanne Muchin. “But nothing could be further from the truth. Great selling requires the purest form of authenticity.”
To Muchin, an effective personal brand consists not of buzz words (“adaptable,” “self-starter”) but of stories that convey a person’s values, principles, and goals. And in an authentic personal brand, those stories will capture what really makes a person unique.
To identify your own authentic stories, Muchin recommends asking yourself, “What’s my unique value proposition to the person sitting across from me? What do I want to be memorable for?”
But Muchin points out that being authentic does not mean going off-the-cuff. When she’s preparing to participate in a panel, for instance, she carefully plots the “beats” of the conversation—the key points she wants to make, the stories she wants to tell, the questions she wants to ask others—but stops short of scripting anything.
“You want to be authentic, but you also need to be artful,” Muchin says. “And that requires discipline.”
When thrust into a leadership role, many people worry that their “true” self will not be tough or confident enough to hack it. As a result, they often simply start imitating what they see other leaders doing, says Brenda Booth.
But Booth and Brooke Vuckovic, an adjunct professor of leadership, argue that great leaders must learn to amplify their true selves instead of borrowing from others. “It is about being comfortable in your own skin so you can lead the organization in a way where you do not feel like a charlatan,” says Booth.
That process begins with discovering your unique strengths. Booth and Vuckovic emphasize that not all great leaders fit the same mold. Rather, what sets them apart is the ability to recognize how they affect others.
For example, self-professed introvert Douglas Conant won the admiration of many as CEO of Campbell’s Soup not by making bold, fist-pounding speeches, but by strolling the halls to meet employees face-to-face, and sending handwritten notes to those he wanted to acknowledge. “That was his version of authentic leadership,” says Booth.
And it’s important to remember that authenticity does not guarantee popularity. “People may not like what you do even if you are authentic,” says Booth. “But if you focus on what is right for the organization, then chances are you will earn the respect of the vast majority.”
Being genuine matters for organizations’ brands, too.
In the social media era, customers have come to expect personal connections with brands, says Mohan Sawhney, a clinical professor of marketing. That’s why it’s crucial for companies to embrace the “engagement marketing” model, which aims to establish a deeper, more sustained relationship in which customer needs are genuinely addressed.
“If you only talk to customers about what you sell them, they have the option of tuning out,” Sawhney says. “The motto for engagement marketing is, ‘Ask not how you can sell, but how you can help.’”
“You want to be authentic, but you also need to be artful. And that requires discipline.”
— Suzanne Muchin
Engagement marketers see advertising, for example, not as a means to an end, but as something that can provide real value. Take Valspar Paint, which built an app that not only sells people paint, but also lets them schedule virtual consultations with a color expert.
Other brands authentically engage their customers by offering community (such as American Express, which started a successful online forum for business owners), a sense of inspiration (such as Toms, which donates one pair of shoes for every pair it sells) or entertainment value (such as Marriott International, which introduced an online game that lets players manage a virtual hotel).
But just like any friendship, an authentic customer relationship requires sustained effort, Sawhney warns. “It’s an ongoing conversation. You can’t expect customers to tune in only when you have a product to launch.”
What can you do if your career does not feel true to who you are? Nicholas Pearce has often seen successful executives grapple with that question.
“Many of them had achieved great things, but at a certain point they looked back and said, ‘What was it all for?’” says Pearce, a clinical associate professor. “The market applauded them. Wall Street applauded them. But a part of them was dying daily.”
In his book, The Purpose Path: A Guide to Pursuing Your Authentic Life’s Work, Pearce lays out strategies people can use to better “align their souls with their roles.”
It starts with defining what success should look like for you. Too often, people end up judging themselves using someone else’s scorecard. “People chase after things other people told them they should want,” Pearce says.
One way to build a more authentic rubric: Don’t forget about the downsides that come with traditional measures of success, like salary and title. People in high-paying careers, for example, often have to sacrifice their leisure time or forego more meaningful work. Including those kinds of drawbacks in your calculus can help you make better decisions.
Pearce says that talking to mentors, colleagues, and family members can also help highlight core traits and values that you may not recognize through your own introspection. And exercises like the “Johari Window,” in which you and a peer each choose a series of traits to describe you, can do the same.
Once you’ve figured out your end goal, Pearce says, start strategizing how to get there. That could mean a career overhaul, or smaller steps like volunteering or enrolling in night classes.
“Sometimes we do need to summon the courage to take the leap,” he says, “even if that leap means we don’t necessarily quit our job right away.”
The key seems to be how people perceive their own success and professional value.
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