From the time we are young we are told the virtues of authenticity with the constant refrain: “Be yourself.”
It sounds like simple advice—until you’re at the office. If you’ve ever had trouble showing your true colors there, you’re not alone. Muriel Maignan Wilkins, a coach and consultant for senior leaders, says that many people struggle with being authentic at work, where you don’t choose your coworkers, and where blending in may feel like the safe, professional thing to do.
It starts with your basic well-being. Psychologists have long suspected a link between authenticity and happiness, and a 2008 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology helped prove the connection. The researchers found that authenticity (defined as “being true to oneself in most situations”) correlated with higher self-esteem, lower stress, and greater life satisfaction.
“We know that happier people are more productive, more creative, and better team players,” says Manuel Kraus, a positive psychology specialist who teaches a Udemy.com class called “Authentic Living: The Psychology of Authenticity.” He says that inauthenticity is also draining: “It takes a toll on our energy and mental capacity to pretend we’re someone we’re not.”
That’s how Joanna, a university administrator (who asked that her last name not be used), felt at her first job after graduate school. Usually an opinionated person, she rarely spoke in meetings. She took on volunteer opportunities that she didn’t actually want. She felt guilty for closing her door to eat lunch alone and never told coworkers about her weekend plans.
It was exhausting to work so hard at being neutral—someone everyone liked, but who they also didn’t really know. The workday began to feel much longer, and it was difficult to shed her careful office persona at home. Joanna remembers feeling frustrated by the whole thing.
But the dangers of faking it don’t end there. In “The Moral Virtue of Authenticity: How Inauthenticity Produces Feelings of Immorality and Impurity”—a paper published in the Psychological Science journal earlier this year—three researchers found that feeling inauthentic also made people feel immoral and impure.
Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School, has been studying authenticity for almost a decade, and was one of the “Moral Virtue” researchers. Now she’s looking at more of inauthenticity’s downsides, including its links to stress, burnout, and poor job performance.
Gino has a simple strategy for bringing more of your true self to the office—and research to back it up.
In two recent studies, she asked employees to consider their strengths, then think about how to apply those strengths in their work. She says that the simple self-reflection led to reduced turnover and increased engagement. It also helped employees feel more true to themselves.
“I also wonder how much of it is in our heads,” Gino adds. “We come into organizations and have a sense of what the appropriate worker should be like, but no one is actually stopping us from being a little more like ourselves.”
A co-founder of the executive training and coaching firm Paravis Partners, Wilkins says there’s usually a reason you started hiding your true self. Maybe you spoke up in a meeting and saw your idea torn apart. Maybe a coworker backed away when you shared an unpopular opinion. Maybe it goes all the way back to an elementary school humiliation.
“Once you understand what that story is,” Wilkins says, “it’s about making a decision and a choice that it may not be serving you well.”
Joanna realized that her guarded behavior had grown from a fear of losing her first job. Eventually she got tired of the façade and decided to ditch it. She remembers telling herself ” The worst that could happen was I would be fired, and I could survive that.”
When she started her next job, she aimed to be more authentic from the beginning. She spoke up in meetings, gave honest opinions, and explained to her coworkers that sometimes she’d eat lunch alone, other times she’d join the group.
“You’re not just going to show up at work one day and be your authentic self,” she adds. “It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a choice you have to make, and I’m so much happier having made it.”
Wilkins also recommends keeping authenticity in mind during your next job search. She says if you understand a company’s culture ahead of time, you’ll be less likely to end up faking it to fit in.
“You have to go in with eyes wide open to what you’re signing up for,” she adds. “There needs to be some intersection between what that company represents and what you bring to the table.”
So what does true, comfortable authenticity look like at work? For Joanna, it was as simple as speaking up more and getting a nose piercing she wanted. For others it may be making the jokes they’ve been holding in, or standing up for something they’ve been afraid to voice.
“If you’re authentic, you’re not being a chameleon depending on where you are,” Wilkins says. “There’s a consistent thread in terms of your values, how you treat people, and what you stand for.”
“What you’re really looking for is less dissonance in your life,” she adds. “You want there to be congruency in who you are at work and who you are outside of it.”
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer who often covers topics in business, culture and higher ed. Follow her on Twitter @writermolly.