“Be Authentic At Work”: Is It Always The Best Advice?

Authenticity has been suggested as a key asset for success at work and in life in general. The burgeoning research on authenticity has documented its many benefits, including greater levels of well-being and life satisfaction. That is, authenticity “feels good”. Accordingly, many organizations encourage employees to bring their true selves to work to spark proactivity, creativity, and effectiveness.

A recent study showed that 72% of people said they are authentic at work, and a full 75% that they wanted the coworkers to be authentic and display their true selves. However, a small subset of employees (10%) was skeptical. They believed that showing who they really are could be detrimental and make the workplace environment worse.

In this vein, researchers have also raised concerns about whether authenticity is always desirable, pointing to a potential dark side of authenticity. A reason for this is that revealing one’s authentic self to others can be problematic if the values, beliefs, and priorities that a person is revealing are not liked and appreciated by others in their work environment. Is therefore “be authentic” always the best advice in organizations?

This is the question we wanted to address in a recent article published in Human Relations, where Natalia Karelaia, Hannes Leroy, and I explored the social and performance consequences of behaving authentically at work. We propose that whether authenticity drives positive social and performance consequences at work depends on employees’ alignment with their organizations. That is, when a person shares the values, priorities, and beliefs of the organization, their true self will be celebrated and appreciated by others. In contrast, if an employee does not identify with what their organizations and their fellow workers stand for, authentic behavior may lead to interpersonal conflict.

To illustrate our logic, imagine the case of two HR directors, Paul and James. Both, Paul and James, feel they are authentic at work. Paul is trying to change from the existing reward system based on individual performance to one that values team performance in a family enterprise with a strong communal orientation. Like Paul himself, the company is convinced that a good team spirit is key to remain competitive in the market, and values collaboration above everything else. In contrast, James is fighting a similar battle in an institution whose members strongly believe that, above all, competition between employees increases motivation and performance. James is convinced of the contrary: that enhancing competition among employees cannot do but harm employees’ attitudes and productivity. While others may describe James as a trouble-maker and a difficult person to work with; Paul’s authenticity may allow him to better “connect” with his colleagues and be appreciated.

Our reasoning implies that being authentic allows other work members to clearly understand the employee’s values, attitudes, and goals. Consequently, authenticity reveals either fit (when values match) or misfit (when they don’t) with the organizational context. Authentic individuals who fit in show how similar they are to other work colleagues; and there is ample evidence that similarity leads to interpersonal attraction, trust, and positive social relations, all of which reduce dysfunctional relationship conflict. In contrast, the authenticity of individuals who do not fit in reveals dissimilarity with others in the organization, which fosters poor interpersonal relationships and enhanced conflicts.

Job performance was the outcome variable we studied to address the debated question of whether authenticity pays off at work. Because performance suffers when interpersonal conflicts arise between team members, we assessed whether authentic behavior had any effect on task performance, via relationship conflict.

We tested these ideas in one study at a large Spanish tech organization, with a sample of 251 computer engineers, and using multi-source, time-lag data. Employees reported the extent to which they thought they behaved authentically at work and to which extent they identified with their organization. Supervisors later evaluated participants’ relationship conflict and task performance. We found that when individuals did not align with their organization, they experienced more interpersonal conflicts with other co-workers, which ultimately harmed their performance. In contrast, authentic individuals who were aligned with their organization had fewer conflicts and higher performance.

Thus, despite the undoubtful relationship between authenticity and individuals’ well-being, our findings suggest that the advice “be authentic” might not be infallibly good and must be prescribed with care in professional contexts given its potential negative consequences.

Our work highlights that it is important for organizations to both foster authenticity and ensure individuals’ alignment with their values to achieve optimal work-related outcomes. This could be done by signaling appreciation of the diverse personal identities of employees, while at the same time making explicit the similarities among individual and organizational or team values.

At the individual level, being authentic is beneficial to employees’ well-being, regardless of the social consequences that authenticity may entail. That is, employees may still decide to be true to themselves despite the manifested dissimilarity to others. In today’s organizational world, consider if your organization’s culture is at odds with your most fundamental values. When the mismatch seems insurmountable, maybe it is time to look for another job.

It is also plausible that employees are not correctly reading their colleagues’ and organizations’ values and priorities either because they have not made the effort to do so or because they hold some prejudices against others in their organizations. Organizations can try to help their employees to look actively for “hidden similarities” between co-workers. In this vein, organizing social events and fostering informal conversations can serve to broaden employees’ understanding of what others value and why.

Developing employees’ emotional and social skills repertoire may be crucial to appreciate those who are different and avoid conflicts at work, while being both authentic and caring. Organizations can develop more emotionally intelligent employees and leaders via training or coaching initiatives.

Authenticity is not without risks, but it is the path to a more satisfying and productive professional life. It is time to take those risks and act to promote a culture that emphasizes both diversity and inclusiveness so that all its members can thrive for who they are!

Leadership

via Forbes – Leadership https://www.forbes.com/leadership/

October 10, 2021 at 02:50PM

Laura Guillén is Associate Professor at Esade’s Department of People Management and Organisation./

https://www.forbes.com/sites/esade/2021/10/10/be-authentic-at-work-is-it-always-the-best-advice/

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