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Be True to Yourself—and Thrive Professionally

Francesca GinoResearch by Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

You’ve done your homework and built your résumé. You know that in order to advance in your career you need to lean in. Still, you avoid some opportunities that could advance your career. How many times have you held back from speaking in a key meeting, or hesitated about asking for a challenging new assignment? You may assume you check yourself for fear of failure. But if you look deeper, it’s probably because putting yourself forward doesn’t feel authentic.

Feeling Authentic Correlates with Job Performance

You want to go for it, but an internal voice argues that you’re not being true to yourself. Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino has extensively studied and written about the links between feelings of authenticity and workplace behavior. One series of foundational experiments she coauthored explored the links between participants’ perceived inauthenticity and their self-worth. Recalling a time when they behaved inauthentically, participants frequently reported feeling immoral and impure about themselves.

Our sense of authenticity is like an internal compass that influences every aspect of our work lives. Gino co-conducted a field experiment in a large business process outsourcing company in India to examine the effects of different approaches to training new employees. Findings confirmed that an onboarding program that focused on new employees’ personal identities—emphasizing their unique perspectives and strengths—led to significantly higher customer satisfaction and greater employee retention after six months than traditional orientation programs that emphasized pride in organizational affiliation or skills training.

Finding Confidence Outside Your Comfort Zone

We thrive professionally when we think we’re acting authentically. But sometimes pushing our personal boundaries is a requirement of being successful. Gino co-conducted a series of field experiments at a large US law firm to examine the links between attitudes toward professional networking and career success. Results showed that the lawyers who considered networking distasteful, and avoided it, had fewer billable hours than their peers and were less likely to advance to partner status. In fact, in that setting, professional success depended on the lawyers’ ability to network effectively, both internally and externally.

Feeling inauthentic gives rise to anxiety. And when we feel anxious we don’t project competence. But does that mean we can’t venture outside our comfort zone? Gino says we can, if we first acknowledge our feelings of inauthenticity and then work to mentally reframe a potentially threatening situation. By adopting a “promotional” mindset that prioritizes learning and personal growth, we can transition from a defensive to a more positive, curious stance. As we shift from the one-sided “what can I gain?” mindset to a more balanced “what do I bring to the table?” outlook, our anxiety about the interaction fades, and our confidence grows.

So you may shy away from networking because your automatic reaction is that it isn’t you—but, paradoxically, the more you lean into your authentic self and focus on your own strengths, the more comfortable you’ll feel in the next networking or public-speaking.

Gino’s research continues to explore questions of internal motivation, authenticity, and their impact on individuals and organizations. There’s no doubt that staying true to yourself is key to your internal balance and satisfaction. But the evidence suggests that if you slightly tweak your mental framework about a situation in which you initially feel inauthentic, you can take incremental risks that are likely to reap rewards, which in turn will enhance your sense of competence. This virtuous cycle of honoring your core identity, focusing on your strengths, and taking small risks goes a long way toward building your confidence and moving your career forward.

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▶ Read more from the December 2016 newsletter.

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