NYT op-ed: 'Be yourself' is terrible advice for the workplace

Sincerity is better than authenticity

Honesty isn't always the best policy in the workplace—but that doesn't mean you have to resort to falsehoods, Adam Grant writes in a New York Times op-ed. 

"We are in the Age of Authenticity, where 'be yourself' is the defining advice in life, love, and career," writes Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Authenticity is a common topic in university commencement speeches, and Oprah Winfrey once joked, "I certainly had no idea that being your authentic self could get you as rich as I have become."

But being authentic—"erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world"—isn't always a good option, Grant says.

The perils of authenticity

For one thing, being fully authentic—revealing unspoken truths and telling no white lies—would lead to terrible results. Grant recalls when journalist A. J. Jacobs spent weeks being "radically honest" to see whether doing so was a "path to authentic relationships."

During that time, Jacobs was honest with everyone in his life, including telling a five-year-old girl that the beetle she was holding was dead, not asleep, and remarking to his in-laws that their conversation bored him.

How to spot—and become—an 'authentic leader'

By the end of his experiment, Jacobs had concluded that little white lies are essential to preserving relationships.

In everyday life, some people have a greater tendency toward authenticity than others, depending on the degree to which they have the personality trait known as "self-monitoring," Grant says.

High self-monitors scan situations for social cues and adjust their behavior in order to avoid awkward situations—and as a result, they're less authentic.

Low self-monitors are guided more by their inner states, regardless of social cues. They often criticize high self-monitors as being phony—but may ultimately pay a price for being too authentic.

Grant cites research finding that because high self-monitors are more concerned with their reputation, they advance more quickly in their careers and achieve higher social status. For instance, in an analysis of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions, and they received significantly higher performance evaluations. 

Grant: Act out of character

Rather than seek authenticity, people should seek sincerity, Grant says. "Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be."

Grant cites a study of consultants and investment bankers in which high self-monitors were more likely to borrow management styles and techniques from senior leaders they admired. "They watched senior leaders in the organization, borrowed their language and action, and practiced them until these became second nature," Grant writes.

"They were not authentic," Grant adds, "but they were sincere. It made them more effective [leaders]" (Grant, New York Times, 6/4; Jacobs, Esquire, 7/24/07).

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