Forget Authenticity at Work and Embrace Growth Instead
Don't hide your identity, but consider what's appropriate on the job.
Posted January 19, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Don't confuse your core identity with peripheral characteristics that can, and sometimes should, change.
- “Being true to yourself” may mean that you are stuck in the self you are right now.
- Growing as a person and a professional requires moving out of your comfort zone and trying new ways of being yourself.
When I was a couples therapist, my clients often had to confront the necessity of changing their ineffective or destructive behavior patterns. Sometimes they were open to working on the changes, but from time to time, one of the partners would say, “That’s just the way I am.” I learned pretty quickly that this phrase was code for “I’m just not willing to make that change.” And it did not bode well for the success of the therapy or the relationship.
I feel as if I’m running into the same dynamic when business leaders (and their advisors) talk about “authenticity.” Look, I fully understand the importance of being true to yourself, regardless of the role you are in. Years ago, I had a coaching client who was a closeted lesbian. Her work performance improved dramatically when she chose to come out, and she was rapidly promoted. That kind of hiding who you are takes enormous energy, and it is truly liberating to be able to express yourself more fully in the workplace.
But I think we are confusing elements of our core identity, which we cannot and should not compromise, with peripheral characteristics, which we can and sometimes should change. To be perfectly frank, I really don’t want you to bring your whole self to work. There are elements of yourself (and myself) that are quite inappropriate for the workplace.
The Paradox of Authenticity in the Workplace
So I was delighted to come across the HBR article “The Authenticity Paradox” by Herminia Ibarra. Ibarra lists three definitions of authenticity: being true to yourself, maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do, and making values-based choices. She succinctly challenges whether any of these make good guidance for business leaders.
Among the many challenges Ibarra poses, one stood out for me. “Being true to yourself” may mean that you are stuck in the self you are right now. You’ll hang on to your current beliefs and behaviors and may choose to associate only with others who remind you of you. That leads to stagnation and often to immaturity. Especially when you get a big promotion, being true to your old self almost guarantees failure.
Growing as a person and a professional requires moving out of your comfort zone and trying on new ways of being yourself. “That’s just the way I am” didn’t work well for the distressed couples in my therapy practice, and it won’t work any better for business leaders in today’s challenging world.