Do Companies Prefer INauthentic Employees?

My experience has led me to believe employers want inauthentic employees—people who can make complex situations sound deceptively simple, promising things they know are not possible.

I was on a call once when I expressed doubt that we could deliver a project within the timeline an advertiser had requested, and a colleague later told me I should not have done that. My view is that it’s better to be honest upfront, under-promising, and over-delivering. The worst is to make big promises and then come up short, but my colleague told me we sometimes need to tell business associates what they want to hear. Do you think that’s true?

At the beginning of my career, when I was searching for jobs, I responded in a more nuanced way than I should when asked about my experience and ability to fulfill the requirements of a job. I didn’t get the job. My sister later told me, “All they want to hear is, ‘I’ll get the job done.’”

The height of my honesty was when I told a person interviewing me for a job that I wasn’t a morning person. I didn’t say I wouldn’t show up in the morning. I just noted, “Wow, that’s early,” upon hearing the company’s daily start time.

I always thought I was giving a person a compliment and showing respect by being as honest and authentic as possible, but my business colleague and sister led me to believe employers want inauthentic employees—people who can make complex situations sound deceptively simple, promising things they know are not possible.

I was curious about whether authenticity was a desirable trait in the work world, so I Googled the question, and found an article from Harvard Business Review: “Be Yourself, but Carefully.”

In addition to honesty with prospective employers and clients or customers, there is the question of how honest to be with colleagues. I once felt the need to tell a colleague that the headlines he had written for a new Website were not good. I didn’t use obscenities when I told him, and I didn’t shout it. But my tone was unintentionally strident because I had grown irritable with the meeting we were in, and the fact that I hadn’t been consulted before the new site was launched. I felt how put off he was by my comments, and sent him and the others on the call an e-mail afterward apologizing for my tone and letting him know I would go along with his editorial decisions, even though I disagreed with them. I then also spoke to my boss about wanting to be a part of meetings to plan all new sites that are offshoots of the one I manage. Should I have kept quiet? Or was I right to speak up, but should have done so in a gentler way? As a woman, especially, it can feel like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you do speak up, you can be called aggressive and unpleasant. And if you don’t speak up, or are too mild in the way you do, you can be faulted for not being forceful enough. Instead of being an authentic self, you become concerned with how to create a self that is authentic but inoffensive to everyone.

“…The honest sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences at work is a double-edged sword: Despite its potential benefits, self-disclosure can backfire if it’s hastily conceived, poorly timed, or inconsistent with cultural or organizational norms—hurting your reputation, alienating employees, fostering distrust, and hindering teamwork. Getting it right takes a deft touch for leaders at any stage of their careers,” authors Lisa Rosh and Lynn Offermann write in the HBR article.

Do authenticity and honesty of feelings and thoughts have a place among your corporate values? If so, how do you show employees you value a wide range of personalities and personal styles, and want honest feedback and ideas from employees? If authenticity and honesty are not values you talk about and promote, why not? What do you encourage instead?

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