“Be Authentic” Is Not Sound Leadership Advice For Some Employees. Here’s Why.
Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)
If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions — tough questions, brave questions, you name it. The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.
The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.
- Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.
- Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.
Why Some Employees Can’t “Be Authentic”
I was talking about the importance of authenticity during one of my leadership training seminars when a participant said that “being authentic” is bad advice for women. Is this true? And if so, what’s the alternative? To be fake?
That particular participant likely said being authentic is bad advice for women based on a combination of personal experience plus what we know from decades of research on the topic.
Being Authentic Backfires For Many Women And People Of Color
Here’s the truth: being authentic backfires for many women and people of color. To understand why authenticity is not sound leadership advice for certain employee groups (namely women, people of color, and other underrepresented minorities), we need to put a spotlight on “soft” concepts like cultural norms and stereotypes.
I used quotations around the word soft because many people write these concepts off as digressive and irrelevant to success. However, these more nuanced concepts play a large role in determining someone’s career trajectory, so we need to address them head on.
What am I talking about?
I’m talking about what happens when men and women do the same things but are held to different standards.
Breaching Cultural Stereotypes Leads To (Sometimes Subliminal) Punishment
An authoritative man is more likable than an authoritative woman. Researchers have attributed this gap to the fact that authoritative women transgress an invisible, if not arbitrary, gender boundary.
Within this gender boundary you’ll find qualities such as warmth, harmony, and kindness.
Any deviation from the gender line results in punishment. Punishment takes the form of lower levels of likability, reduced perceptions of competence, and fewer opportunities for advancement.
One study found that women who self-promote in job interviews are seen as less hirable than women who don’t self-promote.
And while women are expected to be agreeable and smile, men are expected to be aggressive and smirk.
Therein lies the problem. Should a woman, simply being her authentic self, decide not to sugarcoat her speech, she breaches a gender norm. Punishment ensues.
A similar concept plays out in racial stereotypes. For instance, one study found that Black job seekers who engaged in salary negotiations received lower starting salaries than White job seekers who engaged in salary negotiations. Why?
Because the Black job seekers weren’t supposed to negotiate to the extent that their White counterparts did, according to racialized stereotypes. Stereotype violation → economic punishment.
Key take-away: If your authentic self is not in line with your categorical stereotype, then being authentic is a risk to your career.
The solution to overcome this authenticity trap is not to be fake. Instead, we need to:
- Educate people on the inequities present in our modern workplace, and
- Work to eradicate these inequities so that one day, everyone can be their authentic selves without fear of retaliation.