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Build Your Career Get Ahead

Faking It at Work? Why You're Better Off Just Being Yourself

Faking It at Work? Why You're Better Off Just Being Yourself
Credit: Gustavo Fazao/Shutterstock

It may seem like you're helping your career by being a team player and building relationships by faking interest in meetings, pretending to like a co-worker when you don't or supporting ideas you're not in favor of. However, new research shows that employees are hurting themselves when they're not true to their beliefs.

Being inauthentic can make employees feel immoral, which in turn can lead to job unhappiness, frustration and burnout, according to a study recently published in the Psychological Science journal.

It's important to not overlook the psychological distress that comes with inauthentic behavior, said Maryam Kouchaki, one of the study's authors and a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"Just as an immoral act violates widely accepted societal moral norms and produces negative feelings, an inauthentic act violates being true to oneself, and it can take a similar toll," Kouchaki said in a recent interview with Kellogg Insight, the school's online magazine.

As part of the study, researchers conducted several experiments, including one where some participants were told to recall times in their personal or professional lives when they behaved in a way that made them feel inauthentic, while other participants were asked to recall times their behavior made them feel genuine. The study's authors found that experiencing inauthenticity, compared with authenticity, consistently led participants to feel more immoral and less clean.

The researchers discovered that inauthentic feelings led to a desire for self-cleansing in an almost literal sense. After writing essays on their fake behavior, participants were asked to take a word-completion test. The results showed that they were more likely to generate cleansing-type words during the test, such as wash, shower and soap. [Communication Is Key to Genuine Employee Engagement ]

They also had a greater interest in cleaning products and behaviors, such as Dove soap, Crest toothpaste, Tide detergent, taking a shower and washing hands than they did when considering neutral products and behaviors.

The bad taste people are left with after they have engaged in inauthentic behavior often leads them to try and compensate for their actions by displaying more helping types of behaviors, such as offering to help others or donating money.

Kouchaki believes this type of "prosocial" behavior is spurred by an attempt to get back to a comfort zone.

"Feeling impure or immoral is a threat to one's moral self-concept," Kouchaki said. "And when your moral self-concept is threatened, you have to address it."

In the study, researchers point to past research that suggests that the vast majority of employees are unengaged at work. Kouchaki believes these low numbers could be caused, in part, by moral distress employees feel when they behave in false ways around the office.

"Behavior that alienates people from themselves will always have an effect," Kouchaki said.

The study's authors believe that business leaders who want an engaged workforce would best be served by understanding their employees' need for feeling positive about their behavior.

"It seems to be true that to act in accordance with one’s own self, emotions and values is a fundamental aspect of well-being," Kouchaki said. "This is something leaders might consider when designing their organizations."

The study was co-authored by Francesca Gino, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, and Adam Galinsky, a business professor at the Columbia Business School.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.

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