Should you really be yourself at work?

Posted 01 Jun 2012 by Paul Deakin
Should you really be yourself at work?

This was a question that Dr Oliver Robinson from the University of Greenwich and colleagues sought to answer in a research paper that attracted considerable attention recently. It centred on ‘authenticity’, and whether by acting in a way that is true to who we really are, we are likely to experience higher levels of wellbeing and satisfaction with life.

Previous research has shown that expressing your thoughts and feelings honestly tends to result in higher self-esteem, life-satisfaction and happiness, and with lower levels of depression. This latest set of research findings was supportive of this.

However – and this is the interesting part – whilst ‘being yourself’ generally (and also, specifically, with your partner, parents and friends) was found to relate to life satisfaction and wellbeing, being yourself at work was not predictive of these positive life outcomes.

This level of context-dependency initially surprised me. I was aware of research linking behaving with authenticity at work with reduced turnover and higher job satisfaction, and had assumed that this would roll over into increased overall life satisfaction. However, this appears not to be the case.

Upon further reflection, it’s less surprising: job satisfaction is only one factor that affects life satisfaction (admittedly, it’s more important for some people than others). Therefore, even if being oneself at work does affect job satisfaction, it won’t necessarily have a large impact on overall life satisfaction. The way we are able to interact with friends and family has far more of an impact on this.

There is also something about the workplace context that acts as a buffer, that lessens the emotional impact of not being able to always ‘be ourselves’. Having to moderate one’s behaviour in front of one’s partner would soon become very trying, but having to do so at work is somehow less burdensome. This could be a tacit recognition that, at times, we just need to toe the line at work. It’s all just part of the game.

So, what’s my take away message?

Be yourself around friends and family. Be yourself at work wherever possible, and find a job that allows you to express yourself – but also recognise that there may be times when you just need to take a step back and behave in a way that fits in with the organisational culture. Yes, be true to yourself if you can, but don’t worry if at times this isn’t possible – it’s unlikely to do you any harm in the long run.

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