Can Being Authentic Improve Your Performance?
Research on the benefits and limitations of authenticity.
Posted October 6, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Being authentic largely distills to alignment between an internal sense of self and outward behavior.
- Being authentic can enhance performance in high-stakes interactions, such as entrepreneurial pitches and job interviews.
- Although authenticity is essential, setting boundaries such as not divulging insecurities or self-doubts during an interview is crucial.
While “being authentic” is a term broadly used, we know when we are being our “true selves” or acting fake. In a prior post, I explored what it means to be authentic, which largely distills to alignment between an “internal sense of self and outward behavior.”1 Being authentic improves well-being, as you might guess. Still, new research explores how being authentic can enhance your performance in high-stakes interactions, such as entrepreneurial pitches and job interviews.
In their research, Francesca Gino and colleagues explored a form of being inauthentic, which they label “catering.” Catering is aiming to “match the target’s preferences, interests, and expectations.”2 While not unhelpful in its moderate forms, in its extreme form, catering is being overly concerned about what an individual thinks of us and trying to act in accordance with their wishes, values, and preferences.
As Gino and colleagues note, the problem with catering is that it increases our “evaluation anxiety” and is cognitively draining. This anxiety, along with the effort of keeping our perspectives hidden, can have detrimental cognitive effects. While that sounds plausible, the researchers wanted to test their predictions.
In one competition among 166 entrepreneurs pitching their ideas, individuals reported their level of catering and authenticity. In the competition, three experienced judges were deciding who would be among the ten semi-finalists. Those reporting higher levels of catering were less likely to be chosen as a semi-finalist (r= -.18, p<.05) compared to those being authentic (r=.17, p<.05).
A second study by the same researchers found support for the “be yourself” advice often given to job candidates. Among a sample of 258 individuals in a lab study, those instructed to “be themselves” compared to those instructed to “answer the interviewer’s questions in a way that they believed met the interviewer’s expectations” had lower levels of reported anxiety and higher performance ratings. Of course, in any job interview, we want to share our best qualities. Still, excessive catering to the expectations of an interviewer can also increase our anxiety and worsen our performance.
So there is some evidence that authenticity can improve performance, but can this backfire? Certainly.
In another study on authenticity in job interviews (and a research article that vividly begins with how Anne Hathaway’s character authentically portrayed herself to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada), Celia Moore and colleagues hypothesize that being “authentic” can be a crucial difference among highly-qualified candidates (the critical caveat is that it is among highly-qualified candidates).
In their research, individuals applying for a teaching position answered questions such as, “I like to be myself rather than trying to act like someone I’m not” and, “For me, it’s better, to be honest about myself when meeting new people, even if it makes me appear less than ideal.” An individual’s level of authenticity improved their likelihood of receiving a job offer if interviewers evaluated them in the 90th percentile and above. If they were evaluated in the bottom decile, authenticity decreased the probability of receiving a job offer. This finding was confirmed in a separate sample of the Legal Core, a group that helps provide legal services to the U.S. Military. Again, if they were in the top 90th percentile in their interviewer evaluation, authenticity positively predicted receiving a job offer (but not at lower percentile levels).
In Adam Grant’s podcast episode, “Authenticity is a Double-Edged Sword,” he noted the positive benefits of authenticity and outlined several boundary conditions—a central one being that “authenticity without boundaries is careless.” This means that you don’t share every thought on your mind, especially your insecurities, when you haven’t established your competence. For example, in a job interview, you don't want to say, “I have doubts about how successful I’ll be in this role.” Or, as an entrepreneur candidly admit, “I have serious doubts this idea will succeed.” In contrast, once you’ve established your credibility, sharing an area you are working to improve openly is safer.
However, it can be hard to know if we’ve established credibility and are in the 90th percentile: So, should we be authentic or not? Within common sense boundaries, the research by Francesco Gino suggests that you are better off being authentic. You’ll decrease your evaluation anxiety and free up cognitive resources to improve performance. And despite the 90th percentile finding, the researchers argued that you are better off aiming for authenticity in the long term. You are more likely to end up in a job that fits who you are and be happier in the long run.
1. (Cha et al., 2019, p. 634).
2. (Gino, Sezer, & Huang, 2020, p. 85).
Cha, S. E., Hewlin, P. F., Roberts, L. M., Buckman, B. R., Leroy, H., Steckler, E. L., Ostermeier, K., & Cooper, D. (2019). Being your true self at work: Integrating the fragmented research on authenticity in organizations. Academy of Management Annals, 13(2), 633-671.
Gino, F., Sezer, O., & Huang, L. (2020). To be or not to be your authentic self? Catering to others’ preferences hinders performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 158, 83-100.
Grant, A. (2020). Authenticity is a double-edged sword. Worklife. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.adamgrant.net/podcast/
Moore, C., Lee, S. Y., Kim, K., & Cable, D. M. (2017). The advantage of being oneself: The role of applicant self-verification in organizational hiring decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102: 1493–1513.