When does it pay off to be authentic? Less often than you think.
Contrary to popular belief, there are not many instances in which it pays off to be authentic. We could summarize them as follows: (a) you belong to the in-group (meaning, you have status, power, or privilege); (b) you are naturally altruistic, charismatic, or likable; or (c) you audience is comprised by your best friends, your close relatives, or the handful of people in the world who have learned to love, or at least tolerate, the unfiltered and uninhibited version of you.
Most of the times, however, you are better off censoring your impulses, exercising self-control, and paying a great deal of attention to how you are perceived by others. Although reputation management has a bad rep (pun intended), that is mostly due to the fact that we tend to limit the use of this term to describing individuals who have failed at restraining their authentic self: Prince Andrew, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and Woody Allen are just a few examples.
At work, you are rewarded for seeming authentic while mastering the art of impression management. One of the reason why some employees miss the offices is that it’s a lot harder to pretend to work from home. The office has always provided plenty of opportunities to “fake good”, and scientific research consistently shows that the most successful employees excel at managing impressions, mostly because they have superior self-control skills. In fact, when we look at scientific or academically valid measures of emotional intelligence (EQ), there is barely any differences between people who score highly on EQ, and those who have the necessary social skills to put on a desirable repertoire of behaviors, or conform to the dominant social etiquette: calm and cool headed rather than volatile or excitable; diplomatic and agreeable rather than confrontational; conscientious and responsible rather than impulsive and reckless, etc. This is particularly true if you manage people: what people appreciate the most is consistency, predictability, safety, and fairness, none of which is possible unless you can repress your impulses, and control your emotions. We overrate charismatic and entertaining leaders, and underrate no-frills, boring managers.
In an age that has thankfully advanced the diversity and inclusion agenda, to the point that smart organizations (and leaders) are now fully focused on harnessing a sense of belonging and inclusion across the board, and valuing the different perspectives, values, and backgrounds that each individual can bring to the organization, it would make total sense to encourage everyone to “just be themselves”. Unfortunately, reality is rather different: if you are part of a minority, low status, unconventional, or neurodiverse group, you will have experienced first hand the pressure to not be yourself, and to try to conform to a dominant set of parameters and rules, and even overcompensate to demonstrate that you can connect with the ruling elite. This is unfair, and sad, and in direct contradiction with any smart diversity and inclusion philosophy – but it is the reality. It is easy to be yourself when you are part of the status-quo: everyone else better learn to fake it.
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Take women, who despite outperforming and outnumbering men in educational settings, and despite scoring higher on most of the psychological traits that enable superior leadership performance, still represent the underdog across most careers an industries, have enormous pressure to conform to male-normative stereotypes, and repress their authentic self. Whether it is to lean-in when they don’t have the talents to back it up, b***it their way up like incompetent men, or out-male men in masculinity, we have created a system that forces competent women to censor the very traits we badly need in leaders, in order to perpetuate outdated and toxic archetypes of macho leadership.
So, before you fall for the authenticity trap, remember that only a rather small number of people in the world are entitled enough to just be themselves, and that even in those cases, we would all be better off if they were able to exercise some restrained, self-control, and care less about their own uncensored self, and more about how they impact others. Most humans are capable of empathy – understanding what others feel – but it takes real effort and motivation to adjust your behaviors in a way that benefits, or at least doesn’t hurt, others. And that is rarely the result of just being yourself.