The old adage to “be yourself” at work has become almost universal advice, regardless of age, industry, or experience. It’s become something we naturally accept as good advice. But why? What are the real benefits to being yourself and does the evidence for them really stack up?
A Brief Look at the “Benefits”
Broadly speaking there are two major categories of benefits: internal, and interpersonal.
Internal benefits relate to outcomes such as lower levels of anxiety, improved attention, and reduced cognitive load for individuals who are ‘true’ to themselves. All of these internal benefits share a common theme, it’s easier to be yourself. Easier in the sense that you’re not constantly “on guard”, monitoring every word you say to ensure it fits with the “work identity” that you’re trying to present to others around you. That type of monitoring requires a great deal of cognitive effort, as well as willpower. Both of which are limited resources, and if you're devoting a large chunk of them every day just to preserve your “work identity” that’s effort you can't allocate to other areas of your life. Over time that constant upkeep can be a serious cause of burnout.
The second group of benefits, interpersonal, centre around the idea that you can connect and relate to others more genuinely, and more strongly, when being yourself. That means showing others what you value and what you’re interested in. When you do that, others are able to form much clearer expectations, they’re more likely to give you tasks that are suited to your skillset, and you're much more likely to end up in a role that aligns with your values and interests. All of those factors lead to stronger, more stable social connections. When people are given tasks or placed in roles that align with their skills, interests, and values they are far more likely to excel at them, and they typically report much higher levels of meaningfulness and happiness at work.
A Real World Demonstration
Recent research by David et al., (2021) condensed the above mentioned benefits into two measurable factors:
Vigor – An affective state, characterised by liveliness and energy. This would reflect the “internal” benefits mentioned above.
Demand-Ability (DA) Fit – the match between an employee’s knowledge, skills, and abilities and the job they’re given. This would reflect the “interpersonal” benefits mentioned above.
They then measured these two factors against perceived levels of “self-verification striving” – in other words, how much they were themselves at work (as seen by themselves, their colleagues, and their supervisor).
They found a direct correlation between how much an employee strives to be themselves at work, and their measured levels of Vigor and DA fit. Both of those factors correlate to improved job performance (in this study, that was either how many sales they made, or the number of tickets resolved by employees in a software company).
What was most unique about these results was the mediating factor of “ethical climate”. The authors found that being yourself at work had much greater positive effects on Vigor and DA fit when there was a strong ethical climate. That means where team members consider and support the organisation’s ethical standards, and set a good example for others. This finding sets up an interesting discussion, because ethics is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when we're looking for areas to improve.
The Take Home Message
Without a strong culture that supports ethical standards, people will either struggle to be themselves at work, or because the climate doesn’t reward that behaviour they'll stop striving to be themselves. If we really want to ensure individuals can reach their full potential at work, those in positions of power must set up and exemplify strong ethical standards. Only then will we be able to see the true benefits of being yourself at work.