Art: Charter

Workers and managers alike tell us that they struggle to balance calls to “Bring your whole self to work” with expectations of workplace professionalism and maintaining boundaries between their work and personal lives.

This challenge may be particularly difficult for the youngest cohort of workers. Some 92% of Gen Z respondents ranked authenticity as their most important personal value in an EY survey. But many managers say that young workers are bringing a little too much of themselves to work. When asked about working with Gen Z colleagues in a January survey from ResumeBuilder, one-third of hiring managers reported that workers in this cohort fail to dress professionally and to use work-appropriate language.

“There’s a generational component to this for sure,” says Julianna Pillemer, an assistant professor of management and organizations at NYU Stern School of Business. “I teach college students, and I see a visceral reaction to the idea that you would ever have to pretend to be something you’re not. But at the same time, they all know that to get the jobs that they want, there is some balancing act.”

Sign up for Charter's newsletter to get the handbook for the future of work delivered to your inbox.

In a new research paper, Pillemer argues for “strategic authenticity,” a model for workers of all generations to effectively balance expressions of one’s inner self with cultural expectations and professional norms of the workplace. We reached out to her to discuss how to put this into practice. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

What makes us think of others as authentic?

Authenticity is alignment between what’s going on inside—my inner states, my inner feelings, my thoughts, or my genuine personality—and what I’m expressing externally. There are two different ways that people can demonstrate that alignment.

The first is by making what’s on the inside expressly known to others through what I call self expressions, or explicitly being transparent and being vulnerable. I am telling you what I actually think, I am sharing my emotions with you. Maybe I give my real opinion on an organizational initiative.

The other way that you can show people that you’re being true to yourself is to behave in a way that’s different from other people around you or from what might be expected from the cultural script in that situation. The reason why that makes us feel like someone’s authentic is because we say, ‘Oh, they’re being weird, and this must mean that it’s coming from themselves because they’re not conforming.’ This is almost like the Donald Trump-type of authenticity where it’s this nonconforming, spontaneous, going-off-the-cuff type, whereas you could think of someone more like Oprah as someone who’s very much more the self-expressive type of authenticity.

How can individuals practice ‘strategic authenticity’ to navigate the tension between authenticity and workplace expectations and norms?

If you are someone who is on that side of wanting to be totally polished, really professional, without any vulnerability or weakness, I would say maybe examine for yourself what are some moments that you could bring this into my workplace interactions, which would help build relationships.

One interesting thing that research shows is we tend to really value authenticity in other people, but we want to be overly scripted, overly polished, overly restrained ourselves. Alixandra Barasch and Jonah Berger found that when you ask someone if they prefer a candid or posed photo of someone else, they prefer a candid photo of someone else. But then you say, do you want a candid photo of yourself on your LinkedIn? They’re like, ‘No, of course not. I want a posed photo.’ What drives that effect is when we see a genuinely candid photo, you feel like you’re seeing someone’s genuine, candid, in-the-moment self. That’s really attractive to us, but we often don’t want other people to see that. The broad starting point would be to just be aware of the fact that ‘Hey, other people do want to see parts of me that I, for whatever reason, might feel hesitant to bring.’

On the flip side, you might be someone who’s like, ‘Yeah, my employer says bring my whole self to work, and I don’t think I should have to change anything about who I am at the workplace.’ Honestly, that’s probably hurting you as well. Think about, ‘Do I really need to bring all of this to the workplace? Or can I do this in a way where I still feel like myself, but in a way that still doesn’t violate anyone else’s expectations or norms of me in any dramatic or offensive way?’

What is the role of managers in supporting workers with this balancing act?

My first piece of advice for managers is to be really thoughtful and really careful about messaging around authenticity, because it can inadvertently create more pressure for people who don’t fit into the box of whatever the typical employee is to navigate this tension. I’ve talked to students and friends who are like, ‘Yeah, I know I’m supposed to network and hang out with everyone and really tell them everything about me, but they’re so different from me. So that’s really hard to do, and then I feel like I’m falling behind in my organization because I can’t identify with these people.’

On the other hand, you might be in an organization with a really stiff culture where you feel like people don’t know each other or don’t enjoy being around each other at all. Or increasingly now, workforces are entirely virtual, and there’s no opportunity for these in-between moments like bumping into someone that act as the glue in many cultures. Leaders in these kinds of organizations might think about ways that you can facilitate more of these genuinely expressive moments between people.

Read a full transcript of our conversation for more, including discussion of the effects of gender and generational differences on authenticity at work and Pillemer’s research on workplace friendship.

Read more from Charter

The handbook for the future of work, delivered to your inbox.