It Doesn't Pay to Be Yourself at Work
By Venessa Wong
April 23, 2012 5:30 PM EDT
Photograph by Ryan McVay/Getty Images

The next time you want to speak your mind at work, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Research by the University of Houston in Texas and the University of Greenwich in London shows that while being yourself around family, friends, and loved ones benefits well-being, being yourself at work has no bearing on life satisfaction.

The report is based on a questionnaire given to 553 participants—240 students employed part-time at the University of Houston and 313 middle-class working professionals in London. The median age was about 26. The study defines authenticity as vocalizing what you’re thinking and feeling, not making things up to impress people, and feeling confident enough to be honest and open, says Oliver Robinson, a senior lecturer at the University of Greenwich’s Department of Psychology and Counselling. “It’s not a problem to be authentic or inauthentic” at work, he says. “It just didn’t matter.”

While half of respondents report that they don’t lie to impress their parents and partners, only one-third said they don’t provide false information to people at work.

Robinson points to other research that shows that people often are expected to control what they say and to bottle emotions in the workplace. “There is an awful amount of impression management at work, that is required at work,” he says. “Being yourself at work doesn’t work because of a need to put on a front.”

While authenticity may not benefit overall well-being, other studies suggest it does benefit the workplace. “Authentic self-expression at work leads to reduced turnover and increased performance and job satisfaction,” says Francesca Gino, an associate professor at the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit of Harvard Business School. Still, most employers don’t value or promote authenticity as they should. “It is rare for organizations to take an authenticity perspective to socialization,” states a working paper she recently coauthored.

“All I can say is, if you’re at work and you’re not expressing yourself—not authentic to yourself—you’re in jolly good company,” says Robinson. The bright side for all us phonies: “It’s really normal and doesn’t have an adverse relationship to quality of life,” he says.

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