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Is authenticity overrated?

Disruptors are a celebrated minority. Here’s why it’s better to temper your authentic self at work.

Is authenticity overrated?
[Photo: Dean Rose/Unsplash]

We often hear that the most important thing in life, and particularly in our careers, is to be true to ourselves. Although few have bothered explaining what this actually means, this advice highlights a number of related popular ideas, such as:

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  • Don’t worry so much about what other people think of you.
  • If you think you are great, you probably are.
  • Just be yourself. Spending too much time or energy thinking about what others expect of you leads to mindless conformity.
  • Follow your intuition. It’s likely a better moral compass than any other, socially fabricated, cultural rule.

This list of examples could go on, but you get the picture. Authenticity, in its purest form, celebrates the uncensored expression of our natural self. Be yourself and all your problems will go away. You’ll be happier and more successful in whatever you do. In contrast, if you adjust your behaviors to fit what others want, you will betray your own values and fail to stand out from the crowd.

Although there’s an unquestionable appeal to the idea that success may not require any social inhibitions, and that others will celebrate and respect the unfiltered and uninhibited version of ourselves, reality couldn’t be more different.

In fact, large-scale scientific studies show that people who are more likely to enjoy higher levels of psychological well-being, interpersonal effectiveness, and career success (including being effective leaders) are actually strong impression managers. In other words, they pay a lot of attention to how others perceive them and successfully adjust their behavior to create a favorable reputation with others. That’s what academic psychologists call “emotionally intelligent” people.

In comparison, people who fail to self-censor or control their behaviors in social situations by conforming to the “just be yourself” rule are more likely to be psychopathic, according to science. And while some of those people are able to get away with it and be perceived as charismatic and likable by others, those impressions  are generally short-lived.

Being true to your values may not be advantageous to others. For example, many brutal dictators and despotic rulers such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, were arguably true to their values and principles, yet this type of psychological authenticity came at the expense of millions of people. Although extreme, it’s easy to see that some values are better than others, and there’s little point in rewarding people for being true to their values when they have detrimental consequences for others.

This is why any civilized society expects citizens to exercise restraint and self-control in the interests of the collective. From obeying traffic rules to standing in line, paying taxes, and keeping public spaces clean, all prosocial acts require a certain degree of impulse control and the realization that one’s own interests are actually secondary to the interests of others.

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The public glorification of nonconformists and disruptors can only be justified by acknowledging that no system or society can function unless the majority of individuals obey and follow rules. That, by definition, relegates disruptors to the minority.

The fact that this sounds controversial, if not heretic, is a testimony to the subliminal power of those norms, and our own belief that we are more unique and special than others, and that others may somehow value our uniqueness more than they actually do.

There are no doubt some people who like you for who you really are, in the sense that they have learned to tolerate–maybe even love–the most unfiltered and uncensored version of you. But I would guess that they are just a few individuals. For the vast majority of people who interact with you, and especially those in your professional life, it’s better to disguise your natural self, at least to begin with. Outside your intimate circle of family and friends, you have to earn the right to be yourself–and some people would still prefer that you don’t.

That said, there are clearly some benefits to seeming authentic in the eyes of others, regardless of whether you actually are or not. This other type of authenticity is far more important than its self-centered version. As long as you behave in socially desirable ways, or display culturally valued traits, it’s a bonus to also be seen as genuine or spontaneous.

Here’s the bottom line: You are generally better off coming across as likable, which will generally require some effort, restraint, and attention to what others expect and want to see. Seeming authentic in the process is the cherry on top of the cake, but it requires a fair amount of faking.

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