Some experts say that current American workplace and management practices are destroying workers’ health and well-being. Yet we have come a long way when it comes to improving working conditions for the average employee.
Just over 100 years ago, when the foundations of human resources were laid out with the pioneering efforts of Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management, people were happy to work in assembly lines and work was repetitive, predictable, and unintellectual. There were no complaints about clocking in and out, and managers were focused on turning employees into productive machines that blended with the wider machinery in their factories. Although that is still the reality for millions of people around the world–from factory workers to call center operators–they’re the exception rather than the rule in the industrialized world.
As working conditions have improved, so have expectations. For most employees, a steady job is not enough, even when it pays well. People expect to be engaged with their jobs and employers, and they have an unprecedented need to see their work as fulfilling and mission-driven. They want a meaningful career. Welcome to the age of the spiritual workaholic.
If there is one explanation for the low levels of employee engagement among knowledge workers–other than incompetent leadership–it is the fact that we have become spoiled and entitled about what we expect from work. Yet realistically, it is not possible for the majority of employers to provide well-paid, meaningful, interesting jobs with opportunities to grow, learn, and develop, and lots of freedom on the side. But if everyone thinks they can have that, they are not going to be very fulfilled, that’s for sure.
Alongside this, there has been a great deal of discussion recently about the importance of expressing your true authentic self at work. Although it is not entirely clear what this means, a common interpretation is that we are reluctant to fake it at work. In other words, we demand the right to express ourselves in a candid and unfiltered way and think employers should put up with this. By the same token, it is no longer acceptable to be given tasks or placed in jobs that are not aligned with our interests or values. Jobs should be more like a hobby, vocation, or vacation–though we should of course still be paid for it–and feel less like work.
Does this mean that if you’re not in a job that enables you to behave as you do with your close friends and family, you should worry, or perhaps even quit? Should you be looking for an employer who not only tolerates but also embraces the truly unfiltered version of you?
Psychological research suggests that high-performing employees are in essence great impression managers. This may have a negative connotation, but that is largely what emotional intelligence (EQ) is about. It’s the ability to adjust your behavior to manage impressions and be more rewarding to deal with. The key is to do it in a way that seems authentic to others, but there is a great deal of faking underlying this adaptive form of authenticity. In contrast, not caring about how you impact on others, and behaving in spontaneous and uninhibited ways, will probably make you appear obnoxious.
Employers will only care about your values if they align with their own. This makes efforts to boost “cognitive diversity” quite hypocritical. The reality is that they’re much more interested in promoting culture-fit. The more you agree with them, the happier they’ll be with you, because they won’t need to spend much time explaining why you need to do what they want you to do.
Besides, it is always easier to manage people when they are all the same, and have the same beliefs. (Note: The root of culture is cult.) This means that there will be double standards in place in most organizations. If you buy into the party line and adhere to the leaders’ values, then please be yourself. However, if you don’t, then you are better off pretending that you do, or the system will sooner or later reject you.
When leaders are given the green light to be themselves, they are much more likely to indulge in naughty and antisocial behaviors. This is one of the fundamental lessons of the #MeToo age. Just because some people are high performers or even star contributors, doesn’t mean we should allow them to behave in whatever way they want. Sexist jokes, antisocial behaviors, bullying, harassment, and other toxic behaviors are all the consequence of excessive licenses granted to leaders or high-status individuals at work. As I illustrate in my latest book, such destructive behaviors are much more common in male than female leaders, not least because women are rarely given the right to just be themselves at work.
So, if you feel the pressure to adjust your behaviors to fit in at work, that’s probably good for you and your colleagues. This doesn’t mean we expect leaders to be mindless conformists and suck up to their bosses to perpetuate the status quo. But unless you are able to drive progress, your attempts to behave in an unfiltered and unspontaneous way will probably hurt your career.