AWEsome work

Anna Sutton on promoting Authenticity to enhance Well-being and Engagement at work.

According to the media, millennials have different priorities in comparison with previous generations. We are told, for example, that they would rather have pets than children and are eating too much avocado on toast to ever buy a house. And apparently millennials are looking for something else in the workplace too: they want meaningful work that gives them the opportunity to authentically connect with both their role and their employer. They are searching for the ‘AWEsome’ – work that gives a sense of authenticity, well-being and engagement.

Although authenticity has hit the headlines recently in relation to millennials, the idea has, in fact, long been recognised as an important part of a fulfilling life. As far back as the Greek philosophers, authenticity was promoted as a key part of a life well lived. In introducing a recent special issue of the Review of General Psychology Joshua Hicks and colleagues showed that people of all ages and stages in life value authenticity in themselves and others.

Thanks to advances in psychological research, we now understand more clearly what authenticity is, why we find it so important and how it promotes well-being and engagement at work. We can also address the challenges in the workplace that seem to promote inauthenticity and its negative effects on our well-being and performance. These research findings can help make the dream of ‘AWEsome’ work a reality for everyone.

In search of authenticity
We tend to understand authenticity in two ways, emphasising either consistency or coherence (Sheldon et al., 1997). The first view suggests that consistency in personality traits is the key to authenticity. If we behave similarly across several roles, we are expressing our ‘true self’ more authentically. For example, if someone is consistently warm and friendly to other people in her roles as both a manager and a mother, she might seem more authentic than if she was warm and friendly as a mother but more distant and reserved as a manager.

As appealing as the consistency idea is, it relies on us being able to define our ‘true self’. Some suggest that’s our ‘unguarded self’ – what we are like when we are with loved ones or on our own (Sheldon et al., 2012). This assumes we will be more unguarded with the very people who have greatest power to reject or accept us, or that we are somehow less ourselves when we adapt to different social roles. In fact, research shows that the work role can provide a welcome opportunity for expressing aspects of ourselves that we might not express at home with loved ones. We can feel authentic even if we behave very differently at work and home (Sutton, 2018).

The ‘coherence’ view overcomes these problems. It holds that a personal sense of coherence is key to authenticity: though we may sometimes behave inconsistently across different roles we have a clear sense that all our actions form a coherent story of who we are. Any seeming inconsistencies are genuine expressions of ourselves rather than signs of inauthenticity (Harter, 2002). This approach to authenticity has roots in two traditions in psychology. The humanistic tradition, epitomised by Carl Rogers, views authenticity as a process of becoming aware of our inner states and values and acting in line with them. Similarly, Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory holds that being authentic involves choosing how we will act in order to pursue the long-term life objectives that we believe in and enjoy.

Authenticity, then, is not about identifying descriptors of a true, unchanging self but developing a coherent story in which we integrate facts about ourselves and work towards meaningfulness. It is a subjective experience of both knowing and being ourselves and involves a dynamic process of personal growth and development rather than trying to maintain an unchanging personality profile (Knoll et al., 2015).

Continuing the example above, imagine that our manager starts out in a new job by behaving in what she sees as a professional manner, being fairly reserved and formal with her staff. But she notices that this approach does not seem to work with this team and is concerned that it is alienating her staff. So she adapts her approach to be more friendly and personable, building relationships with her team. It is not that she is behaving inauthentically at either point but that she is engaged in goal-directed behaviour: she is trying to get the best out of her staff and able to adapt her behaviour to meet this goal. She is being true to herself by being an effective, high performing manager.

There is good evidence that authenticity is a sought-after, positive experience for most people (Sutton, 2020). But because authenticity is not a static experience of consistency, how authentic we feel can change in the context of different relationships and as we fulfil different social roles (Chen, 2019). While some people may be more authentic than others overall, each of us has moments when we feel more or less authentic. Authenticity is context-specific and malleable: so if we can find out what conditions or experiences help people feel more authentic at work, we can develop working environments that support authenticity. And when workers are more authentic, both they and their organisations benefit.

Workers who are more authentic are less stressed and have higher well-being (Knoll et al., 2015). Authentic workers benefit their wider team and organisation too. For example, they make a greater contribution of personal ideas and effort, are more productive, behave in a more open and empathic way, and seek out opportunities to grow and learn (Friedman & Lobel, 2003). Authentic leaders have a positive effect on their followers (see ‘In the eye of the beholder’) and employee authenticity even benefits customers, who report more satisfying interactions with workers who are more authentic (Yagil & Medler-Liraz, 2013).

Two of the most commonly researched outcomes of authenticity at work are employee well-being and engagement. A recent meta-analysis summarising 75 international studies found a medium-sized relationship between authenticity and both of these outcomes, so it is worth considering them in more detail (Sutton, 2020).

Well-being is our overall evaluation of our quality of life. It has positive relationships with health outcomes, personal characteristics and neurological functioning. It’s useful in predicting future behaviours, such as the likelihood of leaving a job (Kahneman & Krueger, 2006). Several different psychological perspectives recognise that authenticity is positively related to well-being. For example, psychotherapeutic approaches suggest that losing touch with one’s true self (inauthenticity) is a source of misery while self-determination theory predicts that satisfying our basic needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence leads to a sense of authenticity – which in turn influences well-being.

The close relationship between authenticity and well-being can sometimes lead to confusing conceptual overlap. Philosophers argue that authenticity is both an integral part of and a route towards the good life and this confusion is often reflected in psychological research. For example, researchers have stated that authenticity is the very essence of well-being and also provided evidence that authenticity could predict well-being (Wood et al., 2008). But although authenticity and well-being are certainly related concepts, we can distinguish between them on theoretical and empirical grounds.

From a theoretical point of view, models of well-being predict that authenticity can contribute to eudaimonic well-being (a meaningful life) but may not always promote hedonic well-being (a pleasurable life; Kernis & Goldman, 2006). For example, authentic self-knowledge can be painful, and acting in accordance with our inner values or convictions can sometimes result in social exclusion and can certainly reduce hedonic well-being.

Empirical research also demonstrates a clear distinction between authenticity and well-being. For example, in the 2008 study led by Alex Wood there was a strong positive relationship between authenticity and well-being, but no overlap in the items used to measure the two constructs. In addition, longitudinal studies have shown that the link between authenticity and well-being is unidirectional: authenticity predicts later life satisfaction, but not vice versa (Boyraz et al., 2014).

Notwithstanding this conceptual confusion, there is good evidence that authenticity is directly associated with greater well-being across a range of contexts, including work and personal relationships (Ariza-Montes et al., 2017; Kernis & Goldman, 2006; Wood et al., 2008). Authenticity may also have indirect effects on well-being, acting as a buffer when people experience stressful events. For example, when people are more authentic, they do not experience the reduction in well-being that less authentic people experience after interpersonal conflict (Wickham et al., 2016). Overall, the positive relationship between authenticity and well-being has been demonstrated in many studies which show that people who are more authentic at work experience substantially greater well-being.

Engagement is an employee’s energy, enthusiasm and focused effort in their work. It’s associated with a wide range of outcomes important to organisational success, including greater return on assets, increased profitability and customer satisfaction, and improvements in safety (Reis et al., 2016; Saks & Gruman, 2014). From the beginning of research on engagement at work, the idea of authenticity has been important, with Kahn (1990, p.700) noting that engagement involved the ‘simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s “preferred self” in task behaviours’.

More authentic employees are more likely to work in jobs that fit their core values, or at least to undertake their work in ways that feel more congruent with those values; behaviour that results in increased engagement (Reis et al., 2016). Authenticity may also be an important route by which organisational-level initiatives, such as corporate social responsibility, influence employee engagement. For example, when employees feel able to be more authentic at work, their company’s efforts at being socially responsible have a stronger positive effect on their engagement (Glavas, 2016). Again, the positive relationship between authenticity and engagement indicates that authenticity at work is beneficial.

The challenge of inauthenticity
If authenticity is so beneficial, why would we sometimes choose to be inauthentic? And why is inauthenticity a particular issue at work? In a cross-cultural study of authenticity in different relationships, people reported being least authentic with their work colleagues (Reis et al., 2016).

One reason is that many jobs require people to behave in specific ways. People often seem concerned that giving people the opportunity to be themselves at work will result in complete chaos (despite evidence that we tend to think of our authentic self as an ideal: fundamentally good and moral – see Newman et al., 2014). The penalties for acting out of line with workplace expectations can be severe, from social condemnation to missed promotions or even being fired (Ariza-Montes et al., 2017). We also know that people in less powerful positions report feeling less able to behave authentically, creating particular problems for authenticity in hierarchical workplaces (Chen, 2019). So although people actively seek authenticity at work and know that inauthenticity makes them unhappy, they also see that inauthenticity is sometimes a necessity – driven by a desire to act professionally, avoid conflict or even avoid losing their jobs (Sutton, 2018).

How do we solve that dilemma? A more nuanced understanding of authenticity involves developing a fit between ourselves and our environment: finding convergence between our own personal values and the goals of our organisation or community and ultimately making better choices of behaviour. To do that, we might need to look to more collectivist cultures. An interesting finding from my recent meta-analysis is that the relationship between authenticity and well-being is slightly weaker in countries which are more collectivist (Sutton, 2020). Individualist cultures such as the UK or USA view people as independent and see overcoming other people’s influence as an essential component of living an authentic life (e.g. Wood et al., 2008). More collectivist cultures view people as interdependent, defined by our membership of social groups and relationships with others. Authenticity in these cultures is about finding a way to pursue our own goals in harmony with our social context (Wang, 2016).

By incorporating this more collectivist view, which gives equal weight to self-direction and harmony with others, we see that authentic self-expression is not the same as spontaneous or unregulated expression. Instead, more authentic people express themselves in a way that feels coherent with who they are and fulfils their work roles.

Promoting authenticity at work
Given the range of positive outcomes associated with authenticity at work and recognising the negative impact that inauthenticity has on people, many organisations are seeking ways to encourage employee authenticity. Recommendations in the research literature essentially boil down to developing a diverse and inclusive organisational culture: a workplace where employees are encouraged to act on their values and work in a way that feels authentic. This is a challenge for many workplaces, which often expect employees to ‘fit in’ with standard corporate values rather than giving them the freedom to work in line with their own. So how can it be done?

We need to start at the beginning, when the employee joins the organisation. For example, an introduction to the organisation that emphasises opportunities to express oneself and develop as an individual within the organisation – rather than merely emphasising the organisation’s values – can lead to better customer satisfaction and employee retention six months later (Cable et al., 2013).

Of course, organisational culture is modelled and maintained by the leaders. Leaders can model authenticity by expressing their values, acting in line with them, and ensuring that their employees are allowed to do so as well, even where their values may be different (Friedman & Lobel, 2003). Employees often feel forced into inauthentic behaviour in order to protect themselves (see online version for more on this), so developing this kind of psychologically safe workplace is essential to promoting authenticity at work.

Finally, we also know that employees with more autonomous jobs or in higher managerial positions with greater autonomy report higher authenticity (Reis et al., 2016; van den Bosch & Taris, 2014). So organisations can work on loosening the constraints of standardisation. Rather than micro-manage every element of a job, it is often possible to provide employees with the autonomy to craft their jobs so that at least some elements of it provide the opportunity for authentic self-expression. For example, giving employees more freedom in how they talk to customers on helplines, rather than micromanaging scripts or number of calls per hour, could enable them to engage more authentically with customers and build better bonds with the company. The customer benefits from a more authentic interaction, the employee benefits from being able to do the job in a way that feels authentic and the company benefits from improved customer loyalty.   

Understanding the balance
Authenticity is increasingly recognised as a valuable resource at work, improving individual well-being and engagement as well as providing positive benefits to the organisation as a whole. AWEsome work that encourages authenticity is not an unattainable ideal. Instead, we can encourage and support authenticity at work, understanding the balance between individual self-direction and harmony with others that is necessary for a well-functioning workplace.

BOX: In the eye of the beholder?
Our focus is authenticity as a subjective feeling of being true to ourselves, but we also make judgements about the authenticity of other people and objects. For example, we might talk about an authentic first edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or an authentic Indian meal. George Newman and others call the first ‘historical’ or ‘connection authenticity’: we judge how authentic the first edition is by an external verification of its connection to the historical event or person. The authenticity of food or an experience, on the other hand, is called ‘categorical authenticity’. We judge how genuine an Indian meal is by how well it conforms to our expectations of what Indian food is like. We don’t need an expert for that.

In all of these ‘types’ of authenticity, we are evaluating the extent to which something is genuinely the thing it is claiming to be. Are we being true to ourselves, is this book a first edition, is this food really Indian? We make these judgements about other people too, as captured for example in the well-known concept of authentic leadership.

Authentic leadership questionnaires ask followers to evaluate how much their leader seems to act in line with his or her true self. In this case, an ‘authentic’ leader is defined as someone who seems self-aware and acts in accordance with their values, being open and transparent in their relationships and decision-making (Walumbwa et al., 2008). Employees who say their leaders are more authentic also report a range of positive work outcomes, such as greater engagement, job satisfaction and commitment (Lemoine et al., 2019), lending support to the notion that authenticity is beneficial not just to the individual but to those around them.

BOX: The virtuous circle of authenticity and trust

In one of my studies (Sutton, 2018), I asked people to describe their experiences of authenticity at work and they often mentioned how authenticity and trust were related. For example, one person said ‘being myself helps to form trusting relationships as [my colleagues] also tend to be open and honest with me’, while another noted how a lack of trust in his colleagues held him back from being authentic ‘I can’t admit to my team that I have mental health issues as they may lose respect for me or think that I cannot do my job [. . .] I wouldn’t want to jeopardise my career’

So there is an element of vulnerability about being authentic: it seems that trusting those we work with is a prerequisite for behaving authentically with them. When trust is present, people are more authentic with each other and this in turn helps to build trust. Together, they build a virtuous circle. 

- Anna Sutton is Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at the University of Waikato
[email protected]

Illustration: Nick Oliver


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