How we compensate when we can’t be our authentic selves.
Our lives and careers are filled with examples of inauthentic behavior. We feign interest in meetings or laugh at our boss’s bad jokes in order to be positive team members, build relationships, and accomplish shared goals. This is how we get along—and it is how some of us get ahead.
But according to Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, our chronic phoniness comes at a cost. In her latest research, Kouchaki—together with Francesca Gino of Harvard and Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia—shows that being inauthentic actually makes us feel immoral.
“We shouldn’t overlook the psychological distress that comes with inauthentic behavior,” she says. “Just as an immoral act violates widely accepted societal moral norms and produces negative feelings, an inauthentic act violates being true to oneself, and it can take a similar toll.”
Kouchaki’s research is the first empirical demonstration that authenticity and morality are linked in this way. Across five experiments, she and her colleagues discovered that when asked to recall “a time in your personal or professional life when you behaved in a way that made you feel inauthentic,” participants expressed greater feelings of moral impurity than those who recalled a neutral experience. On a 7-point scale, those who described an inauthentic experience rated their feelings of impurity at 3.56 on average, compared with an average of 1.51 for those in the control group.
“Staying true to yourself matters, even if it is difficult, because we notice that there is a cost involved in straying too far from your personal values.”
The researchers also found that recalling one’s inauthenticity led to a desire for self-cleansing. Those who wrote personal essays about inauthentic behavior generated more cleansing-related words during a subsequent word-completion test (words like wash, shower, and soap); expressed a greater interest in cleansing products (such as Dove soap, Crest toothpaste, and Tide detergent) over neutral products (such as Post-it notes, Energizer batteries, and Snickers bars); and demonstrated a greater desire for cleansing behaviors (such as taking a shower or washing hands) over neutral behaviors (like watching TV or listening to music). “Simply remembering these inauthentic behaviors makes us feel unclean,” Kouchaki says.
And the feelings of uncleanliness persist, even when our inauthentic actions are not of our own choosing. In a separate experiment, a group of students was asked whether course descriptions should include difficulty ratings.
Afterwards, some participants wrote an essay in support of the opinion they had just expressed, while the others wrote in support of the side they did not believe in. Those who wrote “inconsistent” essays showed a greater desire for cleanliness than those who expressed their honest opinion—even though they had been directed to take that stance by the researchers.
If inauthentic behavior makes us feel less pure, what do we do to compensate? “Feeling impure or immoral is a threat to one’s moral self-concept,” Kouchaki says. “And when your moral self-concept is threatened, you have to address it.”
One way to compensate for feelings of impurity is to physically clean oneself—as suggested by participants’ desires in previous experiments. But that is not the only strategy. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers found that feeling fake can drive people to engage in “prosocial” behaviors such as offering help or donating money. When given the opportunity to fill out an optional 15-minute survey to assist the researchers, a third of those who remembered past instances of inauthenticity did so; only 17 percent of those who had written about a time they felt true to themselves agreed to help out. (Interestingly, those who were given a chance to wash their hands no longer saw the need to engage in prosocial behavior.)
Whether through self-cleansing or prosocial behavior, each of us is disposed to protect our identity as moral beings. “We all have a certain comfort zone when it comes to our moral self-concept,” Kouchaki says. The level may be different for a saint than an assassin, but the basic dynamic holds true: when people act inauthentically, they find a way to return to that comfort zone. “We have a kind of moral debt that’s caused by being inauthentic.”
The Costs of Emotional Labor
The fact that inauthentic behavior threatens our sense of morality may shed light on certain aspects of the modern workplace. Take employee engagement, for example. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. And for those who eventually leave their jobs, frustration, burnout, disillusionment, and misalignment with personal values are often cited.
Kouchaki believes this employee disengagement might be caused in part by moral distress. “Behavior that alienates people from themselves will always have an effect,” she says.
Hotel staff, for instance, might wield tight-lipped smiles and impeccable manners during exchanges with even the most disagreeable travelers. Kouchaki calls this “surface acting”—common behavior for those whose jobs depend on politeness and constant restraint. “This type of emotional labor has consequences,” she says.
For business leaders, these consequences are worth keeping in mind. If employee dissatisfaction is based on a violation of moral values—even at a subconscious level—it might be worth considering how authentic employees are allowed to be in their particular role. “It seems to be true that to act in accordance with one’s own self, emotions, and values is a fundamental aspect of well-being,” Kouchaki says. “Leaders might want to factor that in. The knowledge that inauthentic behavior has costs and that prosocial behavior”—like assisting or mentoring a colleague—“increases moral self-regard—this is something leaders might consider when designing their organizations.”
In other words, it is important to note that a threat to someone’s moral self-concept is different from other negative states of mind such as feeling confused, disrespected, or overwhelmed. Clear instructions, positive feedback, and flexible hours are all undoubtedly appreciated, but for leaders who want to keep their employees engaged for as long as possible, understanding their need for a positive moral self-concept might be key.
Of course, being true to oneself is a complex proposition. “As human beings we have multiple identities, and our identity depends on which of ourselves is most salient at the moment,” Kouchaki says. Our identities shift on a daily basis—from parent to professional, from partner to friend.
Still, it might be worth the effort. “I would say that staying true to yourself matters, even if it is difficult, because we notice that there is a cost involved in straying too far from your personal values.”