A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Learnt Authenticity

Can you afford to always be authentic at work?

The word ‘authentic’ seems to crop up more and more in the business literature. There is a whole raft of books and popular articles encouraging authenticity in the workplace. You should not have to ‘fake’ to please others. “They” should not “force you” to think and feel in the way “they” want. It is not only unfair but unhealthy. Be yourself, be true. Authencity means sincerity: express, verbally and non verbally, how you really think and feel

That is morally right and probably commercially right. People like, respect and want authentic interactions. Yet another key to health, wealth and happiness is being your ‘real self’ at work. Or so we are told by the looking-for-a-new-fad gurus.

Often this sounds like adolescent drivel about ‘discovering the real you’. Exploring the sense of who you are. Just being the person you really are deep down. All that inner-you psychobabble that never seems to go away.

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But would you like doctors to tell their heart-sinking patients know what they really think of them? Or teachers their unruly pupils? They might easily be struck off with a large dose of litigation for good measure.

How can you expect those in the service industry to behave ‘authentically’ towards their many and varied (and demanding and hard to please) customers? Do you really want waiters and waitresses to ‘be themselves’ whilst doing their job? Or cabin crew? Or sales staff?

The clever ones know how to increase the probability of getting a tip. They have to focus on the needs, vulnerabilities and whims of the customer. The customer is king, not their own fragile ego. Their job is to compliment the customer: appeal to his/her vanity or sometimes guilt. To be focussed exclusively on the needs of the other.

Here is the academic statement: “During all customer interactions, employees have to engage in emotional labour, which is the regulation of their own emotions and the management of customers relations, for financial gain.” You are paid to be nice to all customers whether you like them or not. You have to be attentive, polite and charming, irrespective of whether you have a hangover, have just split up with your partner or you have serious, acute financial problems. Indeed, the more of the laser, the more you need the first. This is why dealing with the public can be so trying.

In a book subtitled “The Commercialisation of Human Feeling” an author (A. Hochschild) distinguishes between two ways of coping with the demands of a serious job: Deep vs. Surface Acting. The first was a bit like method acting. The aim is to try to (truly) modify your inner feelings so that in effect you are not acting at all but showing what you really feel. In this sense it is genuinely a real striving for authenticity.

Surface acting on the other hand, is just learning the lines. “We look forward to seeing you again on XYZ Airways,” “We have enjoyed looking after you.” And, of course, putting on the (apparently) sincere smile, a task poor Gordon Brown never mastered—to his cost.

Again, in academic speak this reads as follows. Deep acting is a planned, anticipatory approach aimed to induce real desired feelings by (for instance) recalling prior events, reappraising the situation or reframing the value proposition. Surface acting on the other hand, involves the amplifying, faking or suppressing expressions of emotion to customers. So deep acting is a genuine good faith attempt to enhance all aspects of a customer’s experience, while surface acting is aimed to meet job requirements alone.

The theory says deep acting is better because ultimately it puts less strain on the service provider and second because customers can spot and dislike the insincerity of all that service play-acting. You know it’s a game, they know it’s a game. Come clean. Try a top-end airline carrier and a no-frills alternative. There you have it.

Deep acting is also better because (through emotional regulation) it leads to higher-quality performance. It improves the employee’s mood which evokes positive reaction in customers, enhancing, in turn, the employee’s energy and ‘social resources’. This then enables ‘extra-role’ service (going beyond that which is required and expected). And this leads to extra financial compensation, i.e. tips.

Thus authenticity-aimed deep acting ultimately and consistently enhances work performance, while surface acting distracts from it. Deep actors delight; surface actors suffice.

But how easy is it to acquire service authenticity? Clearly, extraverts can do surface acting much more easily. Drawn to people from an early age and being more socially confident, they don’t find acting a strain or ego-depleting. In fact the opposite. But pity the poor introvert who wanders (mistakenly) into a service-oriented job.

The evidence, by the way, for this deep-surface theory is pretty equivocal. And the implication? Should organisations provide psychological training (re-appraisal, re-framing, cognitive behaviour therapy) to teach deep acting and improve authenticity? How would you feel if you discovered your steward had been on an ‘authenticity course’ to learn to like you a tad more, for a bigger tip?

Learning authenticity: an oxymoron surely?

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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