Should you be your true self at work?

By Dr. Erica XU

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From reality TV shows claiming to unveil what truly happens behind closed doors to the ubiquitous notion of “keeping it real” which permeates hip-hop, authenticity is still seen today as a virtue worth pursuing. But does being true to one’s self can really help you thrive in the workplace? A recent paper[1] explores whether authenticity can be as much of an asset in the office as it is in our personal lives.

Authenticity has long been celebrated as a moral imperative and many studies have shown that leaders seen as authentic can get staff to be more engaged and perform better. Indeed, by displaying traits such as clarity regarding priorities, owning up to mistakes, openly sharing thoughts, and behaving consistently, leaders like Steve Jobs and Robert Oppenheimer have been able to transform mere workers into ardent followers willing to do whatever it takes to make their firms succeed. But can such an authenticity-driven approach yield the same results for ordinary employees navigating an intrinsically political workplace, where one person's gains can often equate to another's losses? After all, while no one at Apple ever dreamt of replacing Jobs, it is often the case that in most instances, only one person gets to be promoted and fly business class while previous peers suddenly become subordinates.

Applying the lens of social penetration theory – which states that authenticity plays a pivotal role in allowing an employee to effectively penetrate the interpersonal boundaries of a coworker – the researchers surveyed the dynamics between colleagues working as junior consultants and the interactions among teachers at four schools in China. As they expected, the action of opening up about yourself helps breaking the glass. Whether talking about your children or dissing the office bully, showing something real helps your fellow coworker feel more relaxed. Eventually your coworker also begins sharing her thoughts with you. The next thing you know, social inclusion occurs and you start joining events like having lunch together, until your coworker eventually starts helping you. 

As the findings suggest, it does seem that being authentic at work can indeed be a potent strategy, not only for you to bond with colleagues but to get their proactive support when needed. However, the effectiveness of authenticity diminishes significantly when coworkers perceive the office environment as being political, as such an atmosphere hinders authenticity’s ability to break interpersonal barriers. Moreover, its impact varies depending on the dynamics between the specific pair of colleagues involved regardless of personality.

Interestingly, authenticity’s effectiveness does not appear to be contingent on coworkers being from a similar background or subject to an obligation of reciprocity, as it is sufficient by itself to build bridges. Still, it remains to be seen how much authenticity one can exhibit before triggering a negative reaction. If authentic displays of narcissism and arrogance can be tolerated from a visionary leader, they might not be so well received by a coworker.  Strike the right balance if you want to get that lunch invitation!



[1] Tang, Y., Xu, E., Huang X. & Pu X “When can display of authenticity at work facilitate coworker interactions? The moderating effect of perception of organizational politics” The Tavistock InstituteHuman Relations 1-26, 2021(