Why it helps to be yourself

Why it helps to be yourself

Encouraging employees to be themselves at work is good for morale – and for business

We’ve all been there. Something hasn’t gone quite right on the way to the office, or a presentation we’ve worked hard on hasn’t met with the reception we were hoping for, and our feelings begin to overwhelm us. Yet instead of letting it all out and expressing our disappointment (or frustration), we put a brave face on things and carry on as normal – as if nothing has happened. When a colleague asks us what’s wrong, we reply that everything’s fine. But what if faking happiness is actually bad for us, and being authentic at work is better all round?

Researchers at the University of Arizona found that workplace behaviour can generally be boiled down to two groups: surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting is all about smiling and showing an interest in other people no matter how we feel inside. Deep acting, on the other hand, matches our behaviour to our mood, and is consequently seen as the more authentic way to be. Unsurprisingly, whereas surface acting might have its uses (when being introduced to a new face in a Zoom meeting, for example), it’s deep acting that others respond most positively to because it shows genuine engagement (good and bad).

Surface acting may be a useful tactic in the short-term but it can have negative consequences as time goes by, according to the study. Allison Gabriel, associate professor of management and the study’s lead researcher, told Human Resources Director that those who “regulate” their behaviour – mixing surface and deep acting from a strategic standpoint, in order to present a “best face” at work – typically display “increased levels of feeling emotionally exhausted and inauthentic”. Trying to be something you’re not is tiring, and it’s always obvious to the people around you – which leads to more frustration when things don’t go your way. Put simply, no one likes a faker. And you can spot one a mile off.

Authentic behaviour can have an impact on increased productivity too. Those perceived to be deep actors receive greater emotional and professional support from their colleagues, which results in greater career progression. One thing leads to another: if people feel secure around each other, it stands to reason that the relationships they develop will lead to closer understanding and a desire to keep investing in them – and that’s likely to mean increased productivity and a better quality of work. Think about it: being part of a project with highly motivated colleagues is far more enjoyable than trying to eke out a response from someone who doesn’t really want to be there.

When it comes to encouraging diverse working culture (aka being yourself), the right leadership is also important. A recent Forbes article gives the example of Michael Tipsord, the boss of insurance conglomerate State Farm, who is a signatory of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge. He and more than 900 fellow CEOs over 85 industries are supporting an initiative that aims to “advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and includes the I Act On pledge for any individual to take”. As any leader worth their salt will tell you, a diverse mix of people and perspectives can only be a good thing for business, as it encourages fresh ways of thinking and keeps things nimble.

So what can the HR director do to encourage positive behaviour? Taking time to observe company culture – and considering running an employee survey asking colleagues how they feel about the work climate – could help. Is it one in which the expressing of honest emotions is encouraged? Or is it one in which it’s more important to present a positive attitude, whatever the situation? Of course, screaming and shouting when something doesn’t go to plan is not a good route to take – but being able to say things honestly and purposefully when it matters should be a good model to follow.

For the HR director, encouraging colleagues to be themselves can be seen not as an insurmountable task but a project with a lot of positivity attached to it. From ensuring the personal wellbeing of each individual to the promotion of more inclusive and better-working teams, the benefits are plain to see. A happier workforce will be more productive, creating a company culture that thrives on getting the most out of everybody – and a business that becomes the best version of itself in the process.

For more on work culture, check out the IWG Media Centre