When we force employees to be inauthentic, that hurts employee engagement

Inauthentic Behavior and Employee Engagement

I’m personally of the belief that one of the only things we really have in this social media-leaning, go-go-go world of 2015 is our emotions, and yet, no one really talks about those as much as they should. (Sad.) Here’s a completely off-the-tracks notion: sex literally creates you (unless you’re a cyborg) and then we’re supposed to go 80+ years and basically be hush-hush about sex? That’s odd. I was just having a text thread with some guy friends today. “What if Eleanor Roosevelt was into anal? I mean, I’d never know!” That’s gross, yes. And do I have any right to know about Eleanor Roosevelt and backdoor preference? Of course not. But it illustrates a broader point: we should talk more openly about things, ranging from our salaries to sex to how we really feel about people, places, trends, and activities.

Here’s the thing: we don’t do that. And at work, we probably do it less than in most places. Being inauthentic at work is also commonplace at a lot of organizations: you want to play politics because it helps your personal arc, or whatever the case may be. 9 times out of 10, if you act like your truly real self at work, you get slapped on the wrist for it. The official term for that concept is “professionalism.”

But maybe rewarding inauthentic behavior with promotions and bumps isn’t really that good. In fact, we have some research on it!

From the Kellogg School:

But according to Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, our chronic phoniness comes at a cost. In her latest research, Kouchaki—together with Francesca Gino of Harvard and Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia—shows that being inauthentic actually makes us feel immoral.

“We shouldn’t overlook the psychological distress that comes with inauthentic behavior,” she says. “Just as an immoral act violates widely accepted societal moral norms and produces negative feelings, an inauthentic act violates being true to oneself, and it can take a similar toll.”

So basically, having to act like a non-authentic version of yourself — i.e. 9-to-5, baby! — can have a serious toll.

Here’s more:

The fact that inauthentic behavior threatens our sense of morality may shed light on certain aspects of the modern workplace. Take employee engagement, for example. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. And for those who eventually leave their jobs, frustration, burnout, disillusionment, and misalignment with personal values are often cited.

Kouchaki believes this employee disengagement might be caused in part by moral distress. “Behavior that alienates people from themselves will always have an effect,” she says.


So this stat we’ve been throwing around for a while — the whole “only 1 in 10 people is engaged at work!” idea — maybe we just figured out the core reason for it. 

Let’s summarize:

  • Work is a complicated web of personalities and relationships
  • You work in teams, but you want to focus on some individual growth
  • To do this, you often have to behave in ways out-of-line with who you really are
  • You’re being inauthentic, i.e. not true to yourself
  • In the process, you’re essentially forcing yourself into a box
  • This behavior alienates you from yourself and causes moral distress
  • You burn out and leave

That’s actually surprisingly more logical than a lot of other things I’ve heard on the topic of employee engagement.

Here’s another good section; most bosses would read this and probably burst into hives:

For business leaders, these consequences are worth keeping in mind. If employee dissatisfaction is based on a violation of moral values—even at a subconscious level—it might be worth considering how authentic employees are allowed to be in their particular role. “It seems to be true that to act in accordance with one’s own self, emotions, and values is a fundamental aspect of well-being,” Kouchaki says. “Leaders might want to factor that in. The knowledge that inauthentic behavior has costs and that prosocial behavior”—like assisting or mentoring a colleague—“increases moral self-regard—this is something leaders might consider when designing their organizations.”

The thing is, if you lined up 100 managers/”leaders” at an org and said, “Listen, you have two choices, and those choices are…”

  • Inauthentic employees who maintain the status quo but ultimately burn out and leave, or..
  • Authentic employees who run around calling it like they see it

What do you think most of the 100 managers would want? I’d say about 92 would pick Option 1. That’s the problem in a nutshell, baby. When you go to work, you often can’t really be yourself if you want any hope of advancement. Imagine if it was like that with your family, or your friends, or your significant other, or whatever other social construct you can think of. It’d be hard, right?


Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. I think it was George Carlin who said something to the effect of “if everyone were honest, the economy would collapse…”

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