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People | Apr 25

Authenticity at work: be honest, is it a good thing?  

People | Apr 25

Being authentic with colleagues seems like a good idea. But is this possible in business? What if you don’t like, admire, or trust a colleague or customer?

Professor Adrian Furnham

Professor Adrian Furnham Professor of Psychology, University College London

Reading Time 8 minutes

Many people say they value authenticity at work. They want to be themselves and express their real emotions. And they want all others to do likewise, particularly their boss and colleagues.  

The word ‘authentic’ implies that one always gives a faithful, honest, and accurate account of personal beliefs, preferences, and desires. It means genuine, bona fide, and honest, while the opposite implies dodgy, dishonest, and insincere.  

We are told by the gurus that ‘authentic’ leaders have all sorts of virtues: they tend to be more self-aware, more disciplined, and inspiring, and more liked and trusted by all stakeholders.  

Being authentic with others always and everywhere seems like a good idea, even a fundamental right. But is this possible in business? What if you don’t like, admire, or trust a colleague or customer? Are you being inauthentic if you don’t show it or express the opposite?  

When it comes to business, it is unanimously agreed upon that the customer is king and to do everything to please him or her. To be professional often means covering up your personal circumstances when you are at work.  

There are a number of psychological concepts that relate to the idea of authenticity that are worth exploring. 

Impression management

The sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term ‘impression management’ 70 years ago. It is the act of presenting oneself favourably in public so that others will form positive judgements. It is used by some psychologists as a synonym for ‘dissimulation’ or, more crudely, lying. It is what people do at selection interviews and sometimes when filling out questionnaires.  

Most people try to create a good impression which may, at the very least, mean being ‘economical with the truth’. This is why the selection interview is a hall of smoke and mirrors where both sides try to get behind the (carefully presented) façade and find the truth.  

Goffman is also well known for his model of dramatic representation which makes three distinctions:  

  • Front stage: this is where people are conscious or aware of their behaviour while performing in front of others. It means playing a part for the public, whoever they may be.  
  • Backstage: being backstage is where the person is not acting or performing for others – no make-up, no lines, no pretence. In this sense, authentic.  
  • Offstage: this occurs when a person is neither front nor backstage. They are unaware of others observing them and are not conscious of being watched. 

So, does the authentic person ignore distinguishments between front stage and backstage? Are they the same whomever they are with? Is that healthy or desirable? 


For 50 years, psychologists have explored ‘self-monitoring’, defined as the tendency to notice (visual, vocal, verbal) cues for socially appropriate behaviour. And, more importantly, to be able and willing to modify one’s behaviour accordingly. Broadly speaking, psychologists split self-monitors into ‘high self-monitors’ and ‘low self-monitors’.  

High self-monitors  Low self-monitors 
High self-monitors are characterised by sensitivity to social cues that indicate socially appropriate behaviour and use those cues to modify self-presentation. Low self-monitors are relatively insensitive to social cues and tend to maintain a consistent self-presentation across different situations. 
High self-monitors emphasise the public self and, like actors, seem to be asking, ‘What role should I be playing in this situation? Low self-monitors are more interested in their personal value systems and private realities. The central question asked by the low self-monitors is, ‘How can I be the person I truly am in this situation?’ 
High self-monitors choose careers in politics and PR, theatre and diplomacy. They are happy selling things and themselves. They do presentations, in every sense of the word, well. Low self-monitors choose the helping professions and prefer being in groups like themselves. 

Clearly, high self-monitors are better at reading non-verbal cues and adjusting their behaviour accordingly. They are socially flexible and adaptable; some would say social chameleons and inauthentic. Low self-monitors are honest to themselves and their beliefs and can be seen as stubborn and socially unskilled.  

These two types respond to people and products rather differently. High self-monitors rate image-oriented advertisements and products as more appealing and effective and seem willing to pay more for the product. By contrast, low self-monitors react more favourably to product-quality-oriented advertisements.  

Political skill

Office ‘politics’ is a bad word, but office ‘savvy’ or ‘political skill’ are good. Psychologists have shown that you can assess the extent to which a person is politically skilful and that this predicts success at work.  

Political skill has been defined as the ability to effectively understand others at work and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal and/or organisational objectives. It has four distinct components:  

  • Social astuteness: This is about being perceptive, insightful, attuned to all the vagaries and nuances of everyday interactions.  
  • Interpersonal influence: This is about being persuasive in different contexts. It inevitably means being adaptable and flexible.  
  • Networking ability: This is understanding the usefulness of, and more importantly to be able to establish, a range of alliances, coalitions, and friendship networks.  
  • Apparent sincerity: Being able to look authentic and genuine on all occasions irrespective of what you really think or feel. It is the ability not to show coerciveness, manipulation, or that one has hidden motives.  

Thus, what you see is not always what you get! Sincerity is therefore part of showmanship. It is good acting and really understanding and displaying appropriate emotions, even if you do not feel them.  

The message is clear: being able to look interested, committed, and sincere is a useful skill, particularly when you are not. Being authentic might simply indicate a lack of skill in this department. 

Emotional labour

There are three types of labour: physical or manual labour, intellectual or cognitive labour, and emotional labour. Even before the craze for emotional intelligence, it was recognised that many workers were required to display certain emotions as part of the job. This has been called ‘emotional labour’, which means hiding or suppressing real feelings while displaying other, even opposite emotions. Waiters and nurses, gardeners and fitness trainers, accountants and attorneys, psychotherapists, and independent financial advisers all must fake emotion: concern, interest, enthusiasm, and so on.  

Those who work in the field have distinguished between:  

  • Surface acting: which occurs when employees display the emotions required for a job without changing how they actually feel.  
  • Deep acting: an effortful process through which workers change their internal feelings to align with organisational expectations, producing more natural and genuine emotional displays.  

The objective of both is typically to show positive emotions, which are presumed to influence the satisfaction of customers and bottom-line outcomes, e.g., sales, positive recommendations, and repeat business.  

The question is, therefore, whether emotional labour is essentially an effort to conceal, rather than reveal, true thoughts and feelings. A requirement to be inauthentic! 

Superficial charm

Then there is the dark side of inauthenticity. One of the key markers of a genuine psychopath is their superficial and glib charm. This is why they are most successful and lethal if they are educated, good-looking, and intelligent.  

There are, in the literature, dozens of cases where otherwise serious ‘grown-ups’ have been conned by the sweet-talking psychopath.  

Psychopaths are often considered to be charming, engaging, and smooth, due to a lack of self-consciousness which frees them from the inhibitions and worries about saying the wrong thing that can cause others to be more socially awkward. However, it is not this, but lack of conscience (super-ego) that is the problem. They are deeply inauthentic liars… all the time.  

Studies show that chief executives with high psychopathy scores tend to be seen as charismatic, creative, and adept at communicating. They tell people what they want to hear, and are praised for their perspicacity, insight, and courage… until they are found out.  

The essence of psychopathy, as opposed to Machiavellianism, is that the former have no guilt, no ‘still small voice’ of conscience. The bright, talented, high-self-monitoring psychopath learns to appear authentic, not simply to smooth social intercourse, but to further their own ends. They are particularly dangerous the more skilful they are and rejoice in letting others believe how authentic they are.  


Being a grown-up and a success at work requires tact and diplomacy. It requires knowing your audience and communicating appropriately.  

There is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, a high self-monitoring, politically skilled person with emotional intelligence and, on the other, a cynical, manipulative psychopath. Is a person authentic because they don’t have the insight and skill to behave otherwise? In this sense, they have no option, but could they be a liability to themselves and others?  

Or is the authentic leader one who knows when and how and where to express what they really feel. As George Burns the elderly comic said, ‘Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’  

In short, authenticity has its place; it is situationally defined and constrained. 

About The Author

Professor Adrian Furnham

Professor Adrian Furnham Professor of Psychology, University College London

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