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Be Yourself

Mark Crocker - April 24, 2024 - 0 comments

‘Be yourself’ is the defining careers advice of the moment. It’s heard everywhere from business leaders in the boardroom, social media influencers, internet ‘gurus’ and graduation day speeches. It’s so common it’s even a hiring tool for some companies.

But ‘being yourself’ can backfire in certain circumstances, says Professor Herminia Ibarra, an expert in organizational behaviour and leadership at London Business School and Insead in France.

For instance, her research suggests that people who have been promoted are at risk of failing in their new role if they have a fixed idea of their own ‘authentic’ personality. Rather than adapting their behaviour to fit their changed status, they carry on exactly as before. For instance, someone who sees themselves as open and friendly may share too much of their thoughts and feelings, thus losing credibility and effectiveness, she explains.

“A very simple definition [of authenticity] is being true to self,” says Ibarra. “But self could be who I am today, who I’ve always been or who I might be tomorrow.”

People can use authenticity as an excuse for staying in their comfort zone and so faced with change, or the need to change, oftentimes individuals will say “that’s not me“ or “this is just who I am” and they use the idea of authenticity to not stretch and grow.

The ease with which you adapt your behaviour to fit new situations depends to what degree you’re a ‘chameleon’ or a ‘true-to-selfer’. Chameleons treat their lives as an opportunity to play a series of roles, carefully choosing their words and deeds to convey just the right impression or to get the best out of others and to achieve their goals. In contrast, ‘true-to-selfers’ use their social dealings with others to convey an unfiltered sense of their personalities.

The problem with ‘be yourself’ as careers advice is that chameleons have a bit of an edge because a lot of jobs, particularly ones that are at higher levels in corporations, call for acting and self-presentational skills that favour people who change their deeds to fit the situation.

Other research suggests it’s only as you progress up the career ladder that you gain the license, power and opportunity to be authentic. It takes time to earn what sociologists call “idiosyncrasy credits”.

The reality is that senior leaders have tried, experimented, trial-and-errored different versions of self, failed at times, but ultimately found whatever works for them, and consolidated a style that allows them to achieve success.
In advising with good intent students and junior staff to ‘be yourself’, senior leaders forget that it’s been a long process. Not understanding that it takes time and effort can result in younger people simply believing that to ‘be yourself’ is all they need to do. It’s not bad advice. It’s just not particularly useful advice.

Honing the Chameleon skills to adapt and adjust based on the circumstances and situation is what is needed and probably better advice. Over time an individual will earn the right and credibility to be truly authentic…

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