When I worked in banking, I saw a lot of pressure to conform. To get ahead and gain favor, many employees made their best efforts to reflect the values that were dominant within their organization. Whether a workplace was fiercely competitive or extremely team-orientated, people’s success depended on conforming in terms of physical attire and “talking shop” to show they could fit in socially. This generated a great deal of stress for employees whose backgrounds, values, and perspectives did not readily fit the prototype for success in their work environments.
So, about 20 years ago, I started to conduct some research on what drives conformity and delve into the experience of suppressing authenticity at work.
According to that research, about a third of employees in North America feel pressure to suppress their personal values and pretend to go along with the values of their organization. They worry about being passed over for promotions if they show how important being a parent is to them; they worry about being viewed as radical if they wear clothing that reflects their religion. They worry about speaking out against organizational directives that are inconsistent with their views on social justice and environmental sustainability; they worry about being misunderstood and outcasted if they disclose personal experiences of inequity and workplace microaggression.
In these situations, we often perceive it is safer to put up a facade of conformity, where we silence our divergent perspectives. There’s a smile when there needs to be a smile, a frown when there needs to be a frown, and a nod when there needs to be a nod.
Unfortunately, when we put up this facade, it creates a sense of dissonance, and we experience higher symptoms of depression. We end up less engaged and less committed to our organization, with more intentions to leave. That’s the irony of it all: Because we’re pretending to fit in, we eventually decide we don’t want to.
The opposite of creating facades is authenticity, the alignment between our internal sense of self and our outward behavior. Research suggests that when we experience authenticity—when we feel that we’re living out our personal values and perspectives—we feel a greater sense of well-being. We have lower levels of depression, we tend to be more satisfied with life, and we are highly engaged in our jobs. With that in mind, I’ve devoted my recent research to uncovering what authenticity looks like at work, and how we can cultivate more of it even when it feels risky.
What drives conformity
According to my research, certain situations and environments tend to promote conformity. In organizations where employees are not invited to participate in decision making, we tend to feel more pressured to create facades. We think, “If I can’t even say where I think the coffee maker should go, I am definitely not going to talk about what I did over the weekend, because no one’s going to relate to that, anyway.”
Authenticity requires psychological safety—an environment where people can freely take interpersonal risks by sharing their true concerns, detecting errors, and saying, “Hey, we made a mistake here; let’s fix it.” If our organization does not allow for that, we are certainly not going to feel comfortable expressing aspects of ourselves that might be in conflict with organizational values. Importantly, authenticity requires a sense of belonging based on our contributions to the organization, not whether we hold “acceptable” points of view or “look the part.” If an environment feels threatening, we’ll tend to conform in order to achieve a sense of protection and safety.
Certain leadership styles can promote conformity, too. If someone with higher status talks in a way that assumes everyone has the same political values, for example, or the same shared childhood experiences, we may feel pressure to just be silent. Even good leadership can drive conformity: In my research with Tracy Dumas and Meredith Burnett, we found that employees who hold values not fully aligned with organizational values tend to conform more when they view their leader as high in integrity. People highly esteem leaders of integrity, to the point that they may be willing to suppress their points of views as a way of reciprocating the benefits of good leadership.
Our own experiences can also encourage us to conform, including minority status. In my surveys, I ask people how much they feel that they are a minority, and in which categories, such as age, political orientation, and race. The more areas where we identify as being a minority, the more likely we are to feel pressured to create a facade of conformity. In more collectivist-oriented cultures, which place value on group harmony, the pressure to conform is even greater.
Sometimes, we actually get advice from people we trust that encourages us to conform. I’ve had some older people in my life say, “Be careful now, keep your head down. Everybody doesn’t have to know what’s going on in your life.” My elders were concerned that I, an African American woman in the business world, not create a stir and become overscrutinized on matters beyond my work performance. This well-intended advice (and often useful advice, depending upon the context), alongside my inherent human desire to self-actualize, continually inspire me to understand what it means to be more authentic. How do we do that?
What authenticity looks like
When we were children, many of us were told to just be ourselves. But no one ever told us how to do it—because people don’t know how. It takes some self-analysis, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be authentic.
1. Authenticity is relational. We live in a world of relationships. We exude our authenticity, and then it is witnessed by others. Because of that, authenticity needs to be combined with emotional intelligence and respect, listening and understanding. Authenticity requires perspective taking, not only from ourselves but from others. As one student I encountered said very poignantly, “If you are going to be authentic, that requires you to be accepting of the authenticity of others.”
That doesn’t mean that our authenticity must be shaped so we are universally liked; it’s OK that our authenticity might challenge some people. We might even offend a bit. But if our authenticity is intended to hurt or disrespect someone, our motives are questionable.
2. Authenticity is a personalized journey. For some of us, our values line up with the values of our environment. When we exude authenticity, it is welcome. But in many cases, the choice to be authentic is a bit risky. Authenticity could be a pathway with no signposts that you have to navigate alone. You may have a few people whose steps you can follow, but you’re all still trying to figure it out.
It helps to find others who are practicing authenticity, so that you can learn from them. But authenticity should always be on your own terms. How you choose to be authentic may be very different from how your colleague, your sister, or your friend chooses to do it. You may find that your attire (such as clothing and hairstyle) is critical to reflecting your authenticity, while someone else may want to integrate family life as an extension to work (for example, occasionally bringing their children into their workplace). Others may choose to honor their culture with art or other artifacts set on display in their office space.
3. Authenticity is based on core values. Authenticity is not about whether we should place the coffee maker on the second or third floor. It’s about fundamental aspects about ourselves—our identity, our beliefs, and our perspectives about what is right.
While some of our values are malleable and can change over time, others are core to us and are very difficult to shake. If we compromise them, we’re not going to feel good. We can have core values related to politics, religion, upbringing, or social or economic status. As noted above, we may also have core values regarding family life, our culture, and our physical appearance.
How to be more authentic
Now for that part no one ever explained to you: the nuts and bolts of how to be authentic. To start off, the first question to ask about your core values is whether they are functional. Do they compromise relationships? Is there any bias connected to them? If they are dysfunctional, then it is time to reevaluate them and develop new core values, understanding that it may take some work. Core values are the basis of our habits and are therefore difficult to change, but it’s necessary if those habits (although authentic) are working against you.
As you evaluate your core values, you can ask these questions: What are my negotiables and non-negotiables? What would make my work environment more engaging for me? What would make me feel more authentic? When I am unable to be myself when it comes to my values, how do I feel?
The principle is that when you compromise your core values, you are compromising your well-being.
As you consider these questions, it helps to think about your threshold. Your threshold of authenticity is the level of authentic engagement that brings about benefits to your well-being—that level of satisfaction of feeling true to yourself. Think about those times when you were fully engaged and you thought, “This is my moment. I feel authentic.” Whom were you with? What were you doing? How can you replicate that more?” In order to get there, it might mean having vulnerable conversations, or sharing more of your identity with others. Take the time to think about those places where you can bring more of yourself.
You don’t have to do it all at work. Maybe there are other contexts where you can express your political values, for example. Authenticity is not really about exuding everything and baring your soul all the time. It’s about identifying what’s important to you and determining how much you can integrate those values into your work life or other areas, so that you can experience life satisfaction, feel engaged, and make a positive contribution to work and society.
The challenge of organizations today is how to manage a workplace that encourages authenticity. As a leader, what do you do when everyone is bringing in diverse perspectives? You have to manage those perspectives in a way that still allows the organization to be efficient and thrive. More than ever, it’s going to require courage. Leaders who are not afraid of difficult conversations. Leaders who are willing to do the work to address their biases and counteract longstanding prejudices against certain perspectives in the workplace.
Those leaders who are willing to take this on will benefit from more innovative conversations, organizational learning, and employees feeling confident and engaged because they’re bringing their true selves into the workplace.
It starts with you taking those risks, according to your level of comfort, and taking more steps to reach that threshold where you and those around you experience the full benefits of your authenticity. Remember, authenticity is a journey, and no one can tell you where it should lead you. For some of you, being authentic might be the most courageous thing you have ever done.
This essay is based on a talk that is part of the Positive Links Speaker Series by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. The Center is dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations.