With society’s high pressures to achieve, it’s understandable that individuals prefer to hide their flaws — but doing so comes at a cost.
I learned that lesson when I ventured on a multi-day hiking expedition in Kananaskis, Canada. As a new hiker, I struggled. The trip consisted of continuous steep inclines, which would’ve been difficult even without needing to carry our heavy camping packs. I was slowed down by one particularly challenging climb, yet I refused to tell my teammates in hopes that I would seem perseverant. To my delight (and surprise), one of the more active members requested that we stop for a break. I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one hiding my weaknesses after noticing the rest of the team’s apparent relief.
For many of us, authenticity, or behaving as one’s “true” self in daily life, is quite challenging. Even the idea of it goes against our nature. As social beings, we’ve learned to adapt and blend into our environment, making it challenging to display who we are at times. Yet, the advantages of vulnerability and authenticity are evident, driving its recent popularity among thought leaders.¹ Authenticity even improved my hiking experience — the moment my group admitted to our shortcomings was when we started working better as a team. So, can being ourselves not only help us work better, but help those who work around us?
The truth is, it can.
Researchers in Germany found that not only do authentic workers have higher work engagement and lower work exhaustion, but their teammates had the same results, regardless of whether they were authentic themselves. The effect occurs in reverse — employees with authentic teammates had higher work engagement, even if the employees lacked authenticity themselves. The results suggest that the benefits of authenticity go beyond the individual, and spillover to teammates as well. So, we can improve our teammates’ work behavior by merely being ourselves.²
Why authenticity boosts our teammates
Social penetration theory can help explain this idea. The theory states that our disclosure of personal information helps strengthen the relationships with those we share that information with.³ So, the most productive relationships are those in which information is freely and comfortably shared. By disclosing information in the realm of authenticity, we can help our teammates feel safe enough to do the same.
So what is it about “authentic teammates” that makes them have such a positive impact? First and foremost, authentic teammates do not prioritize protecting their ego at the cost of their work or relationships. Authentic teammates recognize the interests of both themselves and others when making decisions, which allows those they work with to feel safe while being themselves at work. As a result, authentic teammates are more connected to their work, less exhausted by work, and influence their teammates in the same way. By focusing less on appearing hard-working in hopes to get ahead — and more on trying to be better all-around individuals — authentic teammates can make a tremendous impact on their work environment.²
How to incorporate authenticity at work
Authenticity is useful in the workplace at all levels of seniority and can be achieved in several ways. For starters, one doesn’t necessarily need to “be” authentic to experience the benefits. Employees can surround themselves with more authentic individuals in their work environment, thereby benefiting from spillover effects. For managers, including authenticity as a hiring criterion may be the most efficient way to see the advantages.
Of course, employees who don’t want to rely on their teammates can try to improve their expression of authenticity, and managers can encourage authenticity among existing teams.
So how can we spot authenticity in ourselves and others? Two researchers from the University of Georgia and Clayton State University define the four main components⁴ of authenticity to look for:
- Awareness – acknowledging our motives, desires, strengths, and weaknesses.
- Unbiased processing – remaining honest in how we associate our achievements and shortcomings.
- Behavior – acting in accordance with our beliefs.
- Relational orientation – recognizing the extent to which our friends and family see our “true selves.”
However, these aspects describe the ideal authentic individual, which may not be realistic for most people. To start, here are some simple questions you can ask yourself to gauge where you stand in each category, including:
- Why do I do what I do?
- What are the causes of my successes and failures?
- Do I pretend to enjoy situations (or agree to things that I really don’t agree with)?
- Do my friends, family, and co-workers understand who I am?
Answering these questions and putting them into action will increase your connectivity to your work.⁴ Better yet, sharing these answers assures that your teammates can be authentic at work. Try this: the next idea you share something at a meeting, explain why the idea has personal meaning to you. Then, encourage your teammates for honest feedback about what you shared. You will instantly feel more connected to your work, and your teammates may feel comfortable doing the same at a later point.
Authenticity: is it risky?
It’s important to recognize that sharing information, especially at the workplace, can put individuals in a position of vulnerability that they may not wish for. This issue is especially tricky in firms that have a strong organizational identity and groom their employees to perform and behave in a manner that best portrays the firm’s reputation. As long as employees believe that they can trust their teammates, the benefits of authenticity are significant compared to the potential costs of breaking the status quo. Organizations that prioritize identity will soon realize the value in promoting authenticity in their culture, inspiring a shift across various industries.² ⁵ ⁶
With how we work changing seemingly everyday, workplace engagement and exhaustion are evolving challenges. If we as employees can overcome the initial vulnerability that living authentically entails, we can become more connected to our work and our co-workers. In many instances, we cannot control who is on our team, but we can choose how we behave with our teams. This insight can help leaders and employees use their time to work better and happier together.
Thanks to practice, I find hiking easier now than I did several years ago. But these days, when I am on the trail, I am comfortable stopping for a rest—and I always tell my fellow hikers why. Somehow, the more I make my challenges known, the better those around me become.