Video: Friday, 15 November 2019

People talk a lot about the importance of always being yourself, at work and in personal environments. “The hype these days is that authenticity is great. You’re advised to just be yourself, and then everything will work out fine. I was intrigued. Is that true? Being yourself and authentic has a lot of positive effects, but the reality is much more complex. Authenticity can be a recipe for disaster as it is a very messy and complex topic,” says Dr Hannes Leroy from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), who is co-author of an Academy of Management Annals article entitled Being your true self at work: integrating the fragmented research on authenticity in organizations. Dr Hannes Leroy and his co-authors conclude that authenticity is not equally beneficial for everybody in every setting.

“Just be yourself” might not be the best advice

Over various studies the authors have found that the extent to which people feel authentic is negatively correlated with the extent that others perceive a person as authentic. Another potential disaster is when there’s a mismatch between your true self and the prevailing norms at your work.

People get excited when they meet people who seem ‘real.’ Or when they have a leader who strikes them as authentic and straightforward.

Authenticity as the Holy Grail

Research supports that authenticity can lead to psychological benefits, boosting self-esteem, and making people feel happier and more energised at work. The authors analysed hundreds of psychological and management research articles on authenticity published since the late 1990s. In describing the recent ‘surge of public interest in authenticity’, the authors also pointed out that the belief that people should be authentic has been around for thousands of years, promoted by philosophers from Socrates to Jean-Paul Sartre, and psychologists such as Abraham Maslow.

For some people, authenticity can also improve professional image, career outcomes, and effectiveness as leaders. “People get excited when they meet people who seem ‘real.’ Or when they have a leader who strikes them as authentic and straightforward. We increasingly expect people also to be authentic at work, and use authenticity as a standard by which we measure people,” Dr Leroy explains. The researchers wondered if it is only positive when it comes to authenticity.

Does authenticity always play out well at work?

When there’s a mismatch between your true self and the prevailing norms, bringing your whole self to work can be difficult and potentially have negative consequences for your image and career. For example: a retail clerk whose store expects employees to provide ‘service with a smile’, but who begins the work day feeling and looking sad.

“For somebody who has socially valued identities and whose authentic self just happens to fit well with what the organisation’s values, authenticity may be a win-win situation. It might seem very natural for that person to encourage other people to also be themselves, because that person’s experiences being authentic are all good. But it’s not that easy for a lot of people,” Leroy says.

Felt and perceived authenticity

Felt and perceived authenticity are disconnected and this is what the problem gives, especially at the workplace where it is all about perceptions. Dr Leroy explains, “many trainings on leadership are about finding your true self: who are you, what are your values, be true to yourself.”

He says this feeling of being authentic will boost people’s self-esteem but at the same time is a recipe for disaster. “The feeling of being authentic will make you perceived as even less authentic, with all its negative consequences. Therefore trainings on authenticity should make a shift from the more ‘clarify your own values’ to learn more about ‘how your words and deeds are interpreted by others’ and how you can influence your perceived authenticity. Our research even indicated that people with political skills are better at this.”

Sensitive leaders could create environments where people don’t have to pay those costs to be authentic.

How to tackle the challenges of authenticity

Leroy and the co-writers hope that people become more aware of the challenges and the tensions around authenticity faced by a large number of people. “Sensitive leaders could create environments where people don’t have to pay those costs to be authentic,” Leroy says.

Dr Leroy shares three pieces of advise that people can use daily to increase both their felt and perceived authenticity:

1. Caution with calling yourself authentic

Be careful with calling yourself authentic since feeling authentic yourself negatively correlates with perceived authenticity.

2. Three truths that determine your authenticity

If you make an important decision in your life, especially work-related, always take three truths into account that determine your authenticity: your personal truth (your personal values and how you look at the world), the truth of your audience (look at who you are addressing to, who are you speaking to, what are they expecting from you), and the truth of the context in which you operate in (the organisation or society in which you are embedded).

3. Perceived instead of felt authenticity

It is important to be better in authenticity as it does influence your well-being, chances to get promoted or getting that job. It’s complex and hard and appropriate training is needed. Find yourself a training which is not only about feeling authentic, which also is very important, but one who also makes the bridge to perceived authenticity.


Prof.dr. H.L. (Hannes) Leroy
Professor in Leadership Development
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Hannes Leroy
Pile of books with vibrant bookmarks protruding from various pages, symbolizing in-depth research.

Related articles

RSM Discovery

Want to elevate your business to the next level using the latest research? RSM Discovery is your online research platform. Read the latest insights from the best researchers in the field of business. You can also subscribe to the newsletter to receive a bimonthly highlight with the most popular articles.

Do you want to learn more about this subject?

Check out these RSM education programmes

Your contact for more information:

Danielle Baan

Science Communication and Media Officer

Portrait of Erika Harriford-McLaren

Erika Harriford-McLaren

Corporate Communications & PR Manager

Erasmus University campus in autumn, showcasing its iconic red trees, viewed from across the campus pool.