In a New York Times column today Professor Adam Grant firmly rejects the current cult to authenticity. He rejects the commonly offered advice that you should “be yourself.”
Long time readers of this blog will find Grant’s thinking to be familiar. I have often expressed a similar opinion and thus I happily find myself in complete agreement with Grant. Links here.
For the higher purposes of this blog I would only add that the cult to authenticity has been promoted and promulgated by the therapy culture. Therapists who do not know any better often tout the transcendent virtue of being yourself.
We are inclined to forgive them. They have no idea what they are talking about.
Allow Grant to define his terms:
We are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.
Breaking down the barriers between inside and out, making what Freud called free association something you live out in your everyday life, exposing your thoughts and feelings and fantasies to whomever, not caring what others think of you or how they see you… these commonly-held values are very bad advice:
But for most people, “be yourself” is actually terrible advice.
If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.
Right on! As it happens, some people have put this idea to the test. They have wanted to find out what would happen if they blurted out what they really, really felt to whomever.
Grant describes the result:
A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.
“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”
But, when a man decides not to tell his nanny that he is lusting after her body or does not announce to his in-laws that they are boring… is he really being deceitful? Why not say that he is being considerate and tactful? Why not praise him for showing concern for the feelings of others? This does not make him a deceptive liar. It makes him a man of good character.
I think it fair to say that when Jacobs says that it’s all lies and deceit, he is being ironic. I emphasize the point because not everyone is going to understand it that way.
Next, Grant points out that some people are more considerate and tactful. Others are inclined to expose their inner thoughts and feelings willy-nilly.
The former are considered to be inauthentic. The latter are considered to be authentic. I would note that the therapy profession often tells people that if they do not expose what they have inside they will become sick. These values did not come down to us from the moon.
And yet, Grant points out, people who are more tactful and considerate, who care more about how others see them are more respected, get along better with others and tend to be more successful.
Therapists will not like it, but ignoring what other people think of you puts you on the glide path to mediocrity.
People who are tactful and considerate adjust their verbal offerings and their behaviors to the cues that they receive from other people. When we engage in a face-to-face conversation we often modify what we are saying as we read the facial and postural signals the other person is sending.
People who are tactless and inconsiderate are more like stage actors. They blurt out what they have to say, as though under a strange compulsion, as though they are reading lines. And they do not modify what they are saying regardless of how much it hurts or bores the other person.
It is useful to note that the authentic individual so closely resembles an actor reading his lines, generally oblivious to the effect they are having on the audience.
For what it’s worth, Grant calls people who show consideration for other people: high self-monitors. Their counterparts, low self-monitors tend to blurt out their feelings, no matter the consequences. For the record, high self-monitors have a stronger sense of shame… thus of decorum and propriety.
If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone.
But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances. In one fascinating study, when a steak landed on their plates, high self-monitors tasted it before pouring salt, whereas low self-monitors salted it first. As the psychologist Brian Little explains, “It is as though low self-monitors know their salt personalities very well.”
Research studies show that the first group is largely more successful than the latter. One notes that women, in particular, have been conned into thinking that they must express all of their feelings, no matter the circumstances. This habit has worked to their disadvantage in the workplace:
High self-monitors advance faster and earn higher status, in part because they’re more concerned about their reputations. And while that would seem to reward self-promoting frauds, these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them. In a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors received significantly higher evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.
Interestingly, women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men, perhaps because women face stronger cultural pressures to express their feelings. Sadly, that puts them at risk for being judged weak or unprofessional. When Cynthia Danaher was promoted to general manager of a group at Hewlett-Packard, she announced to her 5,300 employees that the job was “scary” and that “I need your help.” She was authentic, and her team lost confidence in her initially. Some researchers even suggest that low self-monitoring may have harmful effects on women’s progress.
We can now expose the fact that therapists have been giving women—and metrosexual men-- some very bad advice. If they share their inner feelings, their anxieties and vulnerabilities, they will look weak, unprofessional and ineffectual. They will compromise their leadership potential because others will lose confidence in them.
Grant then mentions another salient point. People who are tactful and considerate, who care more about “face” than about their inner soulful selves, can be damaged by believing in an inner self.
One does not want to get too far into the philosophical tall grass here, but David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein have shown us all the way out of that morass.
Psychologists have discovered that abandoning the notion of a fixed true self can contribute to psychological growth:
But even high self-monitors can suffer from the belief in authenticity because it presupposes that there is a true self, a bedrock to our personalities that’s a combination of our convictions and abilities. As the psychologist Carol Dweck has long shown, merely believing that there’s a fixed self can interfere with growth.
Here is one way it manifests itself. People who think that they are who they are, who believe they have an immutable self, do not believe that they can change. Thus, then tend to hunker down and refuse even to try to do things differently.
In Grant’s words:
Children who see abilities as fixed give up after failure; managers who believe talent is fixed fail to coach their employees. “As we strive to improve our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass that helps us navigate choices and progress toward our goals,” Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the business school Insead, notes. “When we’re looking to change our game, a too rigid self-concept becomes an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth.”
Grant quotes Lionel Trilling on the difference between authenticity and sincerity, but the basic concept goes back at least to Confucius. The Chinese Sage recommended that you do the right thing, perform the correct social rituals even when you do not know why you are doing them and even when it does not feel like the real You.
If he is right, then the real You is merely an overly familiar bad habit. The Sage adds that you will arrive at sincerity when your good behavior becomes second nature.
Grant offers an explanation:
Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, Trilling urged us to start with our outer selves. Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.
Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.
When Dr. Ibarra studied consultants and investment bankers, she found that high self-monitors were more likely than their authentic peers to experiment with different leadership styles. They watched senior leaders in the organization, borrowed their language and action, and practiced them until these became second nature. They were not authentic, but they were sincere. It made them more effective.