The Importance of Being Earnest

Brandon Routman

Editor’s Note: Part of me wants to make some sort of joke about those Ernest movies from last century … but I know it wouldn’t be that funny, only a few fellow geriatrics would get any references and it’d be a tremendous feat of literary stretching to connect it back to “the modern marketplace.” So, I won’t. Nonetheless, I will admit that I have that instinct, because this piece is all about being true and authentic. And, as your guide along the deep path of PeopleScience, I must be honest and real with you.  KnoWhutIMean, Vern?


Navigating the modern workplace sometimes entails putting on a professional mask. Maybe you presented an idea in a way that makes it seem like you have more confidence in it than you actually do. Maybe you laughed a little too hard at your boss’s not particularly funny joke. Such behaviors are understandable (and forgivable) given the goals you bring to the workplace. We all want to be seen as having good ideas and be liked by the boss. A growing body of academic literature, however, casts a bit of doubt on the efficacy of inauthentic behavior and highlights the benefits of being genuine in the workplace. (Editor’s note: See our related piece on humblebragging.)

Imagine the following scenarios:

1. The Interview

It is your first job interview in a long time. You are nervous. You desperately want to present yourself in the best possible light. That doesn’t come without its share of temptations. When asked whether you have experience doing a task you don’t have experience with, you debate with yourself whether you should spin the truth a little (“well, this one time …”) or give a more honest answer (“no.”) You analyze your incentives: Isn’t it better to fudge a little and get the job than be a stickler and not? You rationalize: Doesn’t everybody stretch the truth a little, now and then?

You wouldn’t be alone if you took the first option. Most people do. According to one study, somewhere between 65% and 92% of job candidates actively misrepresent themselves in interviews by presenting verifiably false information. Between 87% and 96% of candidates conceal undesirable information to make themselves look better. They do this, of course, because they think it gives them a better chance of landing the job. Perhaps surprisingly, though, this could be wrong. Being authentic and candid about who you are, and the skills you have or don’t have, can actually help differentiate you from the rest of the pack and might just get you hired.


Being authentic and candid about who you are … can actually help differentiate you from the rest of the pack and might just get you hired.

Consider a study that examined a pool of about 1,200 people who were trying to get a teaching job. These individuals were both interviewed for the position and surveyed regarding the extent to which they agreed with statements like “When interviewing for a job, I try to be honest about my personality and work style.” The researchers found that the applicants who tended to agree with such statements were more likely to get a job offer (after controlling for other variables). The researchers then replicated the finding on a different subject pool, a set of lawyers seeking a job in the U.S. military.

These findings coincide nicely with another study, covered in this PeopleScience piece. Its message was that people often think they shouldn’t disclose negative information about themselves when, in fact, they should. A person trying to hide a spotty employment history or a mild drug habit when asked about it by a job interviewer would be better off just coming clean. Trying to disguise a defect often leads the interviewer to assume the worst. (Or, as the authors write poetically: “To err is human … and to hide, unwise.”) In contrast, being open about your negative attributes makes you seem honest. And that positive judgment can spill over into perceptions of your other attributes (see the “Halo Effect”) such as whether you’d be a good employee or not.

2. The Onboarding Orientation

Let’s say you gave the honest “No, I don’t have experience with that” answer and, lo and behold, you got the job! Congrats. Now it’s your first day and you are a little nervous, again. You have an opportunity to forge a new identity. Do you try and portray yourself as a no-nonsense workaholic or as someone with a more laidback, pleasant-to-be-around persona? Should you be eager to conform to the organizational ethos or be a bit more individualistic? Of course, the company that hired you has a different perspective on these matters. It wants to sculpt your identity in a way that ensures you are a productive and loyal employee. Given this goal, what should its orientation process look like to introduce you to your new workplace?

One interesting study on call-center workers in India sheds light on this question. New hires were randomly allocated into one of three groups. The first group received the standard orientation that workers had always received. The second group received a slightly different orientation that emphasized how great the company was. They were prompted to reflect on why they were proud to work for that company. They also received a fleece emblazoned with the company’s name. The third group’s orientation was meant to draw out newcomers’ “authentic selves.” Individuals in this group were prompted to reflect on how their specific strengths and individuality could be applied to their job. They were given a fleece emblazoned with their own, personal name. Six months later, individuals in this last group were much more likely to still be at the company and had produced higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Employees at Zappos, a shoe and clothing retailer based in Las Vegas, probably wouldn’t be too surprised by such a study. They work for a company that encourages their authentic selves to come into the office. Employees are given help with personal goals like losing weight. They answer customer phone calls in their own idiosyncratic way rather than according to some pre-assigned script. They can even dress up in zany costumes if they want. The company cultivated such an environment deliberately to attract and retain talented workers. And their efforts make sense given what behavioral scientists know about “cognitive resources;” namely, that they are limited. If you are constantly trying to inhibit your natural behavior and act in an unnatural way, you might not have much left in the cognitive tank to focus on doing your job well, or on how to do it better.



If you are constantly trying to inhibit your natural behavior and act in an unnatural way, you might not have much left in the cognitive tank to focus on doing your job well.

3. The Performance Review

You’ve settled into the job and seem to be doing well. You just had your first performance review and your boss was effusive in her praise. But part of you wonders whether you actually deserved it. You’ve only just begun working here. Was the praise just a ploy to give you a boost in confidence?

When praise is perceived to be inauthentic, it can backfire. Consider an experiment in which students first took a survey measuring their self-confidence, then took one of two versions of a test that either included made-up words, like “besionary,” or did not. All students were then praised for how well they had done. But, of course, those who had read the versions with the made-up words were more likely to think that the praise was hollow. How could they have done well on a test they didn’t really understand? Finally, the students took the survey measuring self-confidence, again. Those who had taken the version without the made-up words had increased confidence levels. For them, praise was psychologically beneficial. Those who had taken the version with the made-up words had decreased levels. Being praised for pretending to have knowledge you don’t have isn’t so great.



Being praised for pretending to have knowledge you don’t have isn’t so great.

The finding illustrates how fine-tuned the brain is when gauging social recognition, as (Editor’s note: expertly) explored in this PeopleScience piece. Consequently, there can be a big difference between a company’s “recognition program” that ostensibly ticks all the right boxes and a system that gives recognition to workers in a more authentic, sincere way. That difference may be subtle and hard to perceive when viewed from the C-suite, but it can be very important for the rest of the workforce.

4. Everyday stress

You have been at the company for a while now and your day-to-day is filled with stressors, large and small. Maybe it’s an annoying co-worker, maybe it’s a demanding client. Nonetheless, how well you handle the emotional storm of the modern workplace depends, at least in part, on how authentic your workplace identity is.

Exhibit A: In an experiment, people were asked to either remember an episode in their life when they felt authentic or one when they felt inauthentic. Then, they played a computer game in which they would throw around a virtual ball with two other “players.” In reality, they were just part of the computer program. Initially, everybody played nice. The real-life participants were included in the game of toss. But at some point, however, the two programmed players started to pass the ball only to each other and exclude the real-life participants. This was stressful for the participants but not equally so. Those who had remembered a moment when they were authentic were less aggravated by their exclusion.

Now, you probably don’t play virtual catch in a computer game for a living. Nonetheless, the lesson of the study – that authenticity serves as a buffer from stress – applies to more realistic settings as well. Just ask hospital nurses. They have incredibly stressful jobs, which is understandable given that they serve patients who may be going through some of the most difficult circumstances of their lives and may be tired, uncomfortable, angry or fearful. How do they deal with it all? One way is to vent to their co-workers. (Their hands are more tied when dealing with patients. It is part of their job to show concern and sympathy for their patients even when they don’t really feel it and to suppress frustration or disgust when they do.) When nurses feel comfortable expressing their true feelings to their colleagues – how irritating that one patient is, or how horrific the night shift was – they are better able to handle the stress of their job and are less likely to burnout.


The lesson of the study – that authenticity serves as a buffer from stress – applies to more realistic settings as well.

Why might this be? Well, it might have to do with the fact that being inauthentic takes a toll on your body: it heightens your physiological arousal and it is physically exhausting and uncomfortable. Being authentic could help bring you back to a calmer, healthier equilibrium. In short, a little venting might actually be good for you.

These are just a few examples in a large academic literature, the underlying message of which is pretty simple: Bringing your authentic self to work, or creating an environment that encourages employees to do so, can have surprising and significant benefits.


Brandon Routman


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