Coach’s Corner Blog

Authenticity in the Workplace: Why “I’ve Gotta Be Me” Might Not Be the Best Plan for Success

June 24, 2016 by Leave a Comment

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There was a major hit in the late 60’s by Sammy Davis, Jr., “I’ve Gotta Be Me”, which was an anthem to individuality and self-expression and the perfect reflection of that turbulent time.

Today, according to Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, we are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career.

Authenticity

Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

In a June 4, 2016 New York Times article, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’, Is Terrible Advice, Grant mentions the following quote by Oprah Winfrey who jokingly stated a few years ago, “I certainly had no idea that being your authentic self could get you as rich as I’ve become. If I’d known that, I’d have tried it a lot earlier.”

Grant talks about how carrying this issue of authenticity to an extreme can certainly have negative ramifications.

We all have developed social filters or self-controls that prevent us from saying whatever may be on our mind at the time. If we expressed our true self and all of the unfiltered thoughts that pop into our brain, we would probably be in a state of constant conflict and turmoil. Some things are just better left unsaid.

Self-Monitoring

Grant tells us that our personalities often dictate how effective our filters may be:

How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait called self-monitoring. If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone. But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances.

Low self-monitors, who would perceive themselves to be much more authentic, often suggest that their opposites would “sell themselves out” to get along or promote their careers. But like anything else, the realities of these differences in personality are much more interesting and complex.

Studies have shown that high self-monitors “advance faster and earn higher status, in part because they’re more concerned about their reputations. And while that would seem to reward self-promoting frauds, these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them.”

I would argue that this style reflects an insightful and empathic view of what’s happening to those we work with.

Rather than selling out, it’s a way to demonstrate how you can contribute to the good of the team and others along the way. This reflects positively on how you are viewed as a collaborator and a teammate. It does not mean that you live your work life in the selfless pursuit of the common good, but that when what’s good for you, your team, and the organization are aligned, everyone wins.

I was surprised when Grant indicated that, “women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men, perhaps because women face stronger cultural pressures to express their feelings.”

If being authentic and a low self-monitor demands a greater level of self-disclosure about your feelings on a situation, then I can see the potential risk. But I find that a candid appraisal of the impact of various decisions can be refreshing and stimulate good dialogue, but overly emotional responses get awkward and can stifle discussion.

Grant suggests that we focus on being sincere rather than just authentic:

In searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, literary critic Lionel Trilling urged us to start with our outer selves. Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.

I would also suggest we should make every effort to be sure that we are consistent and congruent in how we connect with others.

As I reflected upon this interesting perspective, it occurred to me that high self-monitors must have well-developed emotional intelligence and are probably highly empathic to those around them. Instead of focusing on how everything affects them and what they need, they tend to focus upon the following questions regarding others:

  • Why are they saying that?
  • What are their needs for this effort or project?
  • What would a good outcome look like for everyone involved in this discussion or project?
  • How can they contribute in a manner that allows me to learn and grow?

In some regards this gets back to overcoming an “either / or” view of any situation – i.e. it’s either good for me or bad for me, rather than looking for the “and” in the situation and how it can benefit everyone.

Developing Authenticity

I did a little research on Oprah and found that despite her very challenging life circumstances growing up, she got her first chance to be on radio when she was in high school and co-anchored the local evening news at the age of 19. She was 32 years old when the Oprah Winfrey Show debuted in 1986 and that series ended in 2011.

I would suggest that Oprah was not a huge success from the very beginning of her career, but continued to develop and fine-tune her skills in the format of her show over the years until it developed into a successful juggernaut.

My point about Oprah’s experience is that it took time to develop into who she was and for her to gain the confidence in her style that became the hallmark of her success.

My impression is that there is a profound level of impatience that reflects the higher need for being authentic on the part of some of the millennials in the workforce.

I do not criticize that motivation but I believe that everyone can cultivate a more effective style by carefully observing the best behaviors and approaches of those who are most successful and whom you admire.

Borrow and try to incorporate those styles as you grow and develop yours. Your ultimate transformation will always be the addition and subtraction of those behaviors and styles that work best. It does not diminish or sell out who you are, it’s just part of everyone’s life journey.

Ask yourself:

  • Since you are not always the best judge of the impact you have on others, do you regularly ask for feedback in a manner that is efficient and effective for all involved?
  • Do you regularly seek to understand before you worry about seeking to be understood?
  • Do you exercise appropriate caution about how you present yourself to others on social media? Do you allow inappropriate social media tidbits to contradict the authentic self you are trying to project?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

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