The benefits and pitfalls of “being yourself” at work

31 Jan 2024

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An HKBU study found that people who display a high level of authenticity at work are more likely to be included by their coworkers socially and therefore receive help from their coworkers.


Being true to one’s authentic self can make people more accessible, foster stronger relationships among coworkers and create a more positive workplace environment. But the open sharing of thoughts, feelings and personal stories can backfire when the office environment is perceived as highly political. That is the message of an HKBU study that examined how displaying authenticity influences coworker interactions in the workplace.

Authenticity at work means behaving candidly in accordance with one’s values, beliefs, motivations in the presence of others at the workplace. Although research has examined how the display of authenticity facilitates positive leader-follower interactions, relatively little work has been done on the role of authenticity in coworker interactions.

In a study published in the international journal Human Relations, Dr Erica Xu, Associate Professor of the Department of Management, Marketing and Information Systems, and Professor Huang Xu, Associate Dean (Research and Impact) of the School of Business at HKBU, worked with Dr Tang Yipeng, Associate Professor at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, and Dr Pu Xiaoping, Assistant Professor at Wuhan University of Technology, to look at how employees’ exhibited authenticity helps them gain relational benefits in coworker interactions.

Breaking boundaries through authenticity

The researchers drew on social penetration theory and examined the dynamics between coworkers at a consulting firm, and the interactions among teachers from different schools in China. It was found that people who display a high level of authenticity at work are more likely to be included by their coworkers socially and therefore receive help from their coworkers.

“Our findings highlight the importance of examining authenticity in interpersonal relationships. When people display a high level of authenticity, they show deep self-awareness, openness to weakness, transparency, and behaviours consistent with their internal standards. These acts make coworkers infer that they are genuine and trustworthy, therefore the coworkers will tend to include them socially, and eventually become more willing to help them,” Dr Xu says.

Interestingly, the study also reveals that the effectiveness of exhibiting authenticity is not contingent on coworkers being from a similar background or subject to an obligation of reciprocity.

The influence of perceptions of the workplace

Despite its potential benefits, showing authenticity does not have a significant influence on coworkers when the office environment is perceived as being highly political. The perception of organisational politics is an individual’s evaluation of the extent to which political tactics, such as backstabbing and coalition building, exist in the work environment. It is a subjective experience that can influence how individuals interpret others’ behaviours.

The researchers found that in an atmosphere that is perceived as highly political, the social penetration effect of exhibited authenticity diminishes. Dr Xu says: “When people perceive a work environment as highly political, they tend to assume that other people’s exhibited authenticity has a hidden agenda and is driven by self-interest. They may also be more sensitive to the risk of being taken advantage of, and therefore more cautious towards others’ behaviours.”

While being authentic at work can be a potent strategy to bond with colleagues and get their proactive support when needed, it is a double-edged sword. “Displaying authenticity at work helps a person to be accepted in coworkers’ social circles and therefore gain relational benefits, but knowing when and how to do so effectively is important,” says Dr Xu. “Authenticity may have other influences on interpersonal relationships at work, such as making a person less concerned about saving face and less likely to compromise in interpersonal conflicts. Future studies can explore these possibilities to advance understanding of the socio-relational influences of exhibited authenticity in the workplace.”