Be your true self at work

content true self

To what extent do you feel authentic – to ‘be yourself’ – at work? Psychologists define authenticity at work as being able to speak up and behave in line with your genuine beliefs and values without fear of reproach.

At least 75 individual studies have explored the relationship between workplace authenticity and work-related outcomes.

Analysing these previous investigations, social scientist Anna Sutton at the University of Waikato in New Zealand found a strong, positive relationship between authenticity and both psychological wellbeing and the degree to which employees reported feeling engaged with their work.

Three main causes

To achieve greater authenticity at work, it is worth reflecting upon its three main factors. The largest component is known as self-alienation, as measured by the extent to which individuals agree or disagree with questionnaire statements such as ‘I don’t feel who I truly am at work’ and ‘I have to hide the way I feel inside at work’. Self-alienation refers to the experience of feeling like someone different at work, which can lead to emotional turmoil and even burnout.

The second largest contributor to workplace authenticity is authentic living, which reflects employees’ agreement with statements including ‘I behave in accordance with my values and beliefs in the workplace’ and ‘I feel free to express my emotions to others at work’. Not living authentically may mean having to act in ways that contradict core values – for example, when interacting with colleagues or other stakeholders with substantially different beliefs.

Finally, a component known as accepting external influence measures the degree to which an individual must do as others demand. This is measured by agreement with questionnaire statements such as ‘I feel the need to do what others expect me to do at work’ and ‘I behave in a manner that people expect me to behave at work’.

Many people feel inhibited and inauthentic at work. People from ethnic, religious or demographic minorities may alter their behaviour or censor what they speak about at work in order not to appear unacceptably different.

LGBT+ individuals may feel unable to ‘come out’ and reveal their sexual identities. Parents of young children may hide their experience of difficulties at home. Such individuals may stay silent about issues that matter to them – or even actively speak up in apparent agreement with views that are popular within the organisation to protect their image or gain status with colleagues.

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Core values

Becoming more authentic at work frequently begins by reflecting on your core values. What are the most important issues or parts of your identity that you feel are unexpressed? When you have identified these, aim to share them with one or two trusted individuals at work that you consider your friends. Knowing you can be more honest with just a few confidants could greatly improve your sense of authenticity at work.

Also, identify individuals at work who are speaking up, expressing or otherwise practising authenticity in ways that you admire. What do they do or say that you might learn from? However, consider that authenticity is ultimately about expressing your beliefs and values in ways that are comfortable to you. So think about adapting what you observe rather than adopting their behaviour wholesale.

Desirable outcomes

Workplace authenticity is strongly related to desirable outcomes for employees, such as mental wellbeing and job satisfaction. However, employers also have good reasons to promote individuals’ sense of authenticity at work. A study led by Nanjing University researcher Hong Zhang found that workplace authenticity was related to greater levels of moral behaviour in both the US and China. In other words, employees who feel authentic may be less likely to transgress in unethical or illegal ways.

Leadership influence

There is in practice a limit in the extent to which individuals can help themselves to feel more authentic within the constraints of their organisations. The behaviour of leaders is hugely influential in determining how authentic employees feel they can be.

For example, if an organisation’s climate is characterised by racist or misogynistic language that is regarded by the majority of employees as harmless fun, then individuals may rightly realise that being more authentic in their words, behaviour or even physical appearance may make them appear as oddities. In such cases, planning a longer-term strategy to find a new job within a more conducive organisational climate may be the better solution.

Author: Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace

More information

Watch our video with Dr Rob Yeung on authentic leadership

This article was first published in AB magazine July 2023

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