Career advice: This is the best person to try to be at work, according to science

ByJames Dennin

When it comes to success during the job hunt — and after you snag a gig — there is a lot of contradictory advice. On one hand, people are told to “fake it till you make it,” and to “dress for the job you want,” as opposed to the job you have. By emulating our bosses and mentors, the thinking goes, we can learn to be like them and achieve similar success.

But then you get seemingly contradictory advice to just “be yourself,” since over-preparation for job interviews, for instance, can make you seem rehearsed and inauthentic. So what should you actually do?

The latter advice may be the smarter career move, new research suggests. To really set yourself up for success, you should probably lean less on the example of others and more on your own instincts and character. At least that’s the conclusion of a series of recent studies about the importance of authenticity in the workplace. There are caveats, of course — over-confessional or over-indulgent social media posts come to mind.

Yet together the studies suggest trying to present your most “perfect” self isn’t the way to go; in fact, it can backfire. To be your true best self, you actually need to lean into your abilities and idiosyncrasies, not away from them, even if it seems on the surface like those personal traits aren’t helping you.

Confused? Here are three pieces of specific evidence of why being yourself really is a winning strategy at work — and how to do just that without going overboard.

1. Being your authentic self can help you get a new job

Given the right job opening, behaving authentically and reflectively will likely increase your odds of getting an offer, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology published in June.

Those authors studied two batches of job applicants — a group of prospective teachers and a group of lawyers applying for jobs with the military — and found that applicants who went to greater lengths to consciously “self-verify” increased their odds of getting the job by as much as five-fold.

“Self-verification is one of the human fundamental motives to mostly behave and think toward their own self-perception,” said study co-author Dr. SunYoung Lee, a lecturer at the University College London School of Management. “To think and be who they are rather than pretending to be someone else.”

What might self-verification look in a job interview, exactly? In one part of the study, the authors studied applicants’ linguistic patterns and found that they were more likely to use certain phrases: “People with high self-verification motives use more words about self-knowledge,” Lee said. “They use more expressions such as ‘I think,’ or ‘I feel’ or ‘I sense .... if someone is really genuine then actually the person has to think for each question.”

The researchers write that while other studies suggest self-verification can improve outcomes in the long term, theirs shows its benefits in short-term interactions as well, like with a hiring manager. “In a job interview, we often try to present ourselves as perfect,” said Celia Moore of Bocconi University in Milan — the study’s lead author — in a press release about the findings. “Our study proves this instinct wrong.”

One caveat is that this technique works only if you’re a highly-qualified applicant in the first place, in the top 10% or so, the researchers say. “If someone is low-quality, if they’re not competent, or disorganized, and he’s true about himself,” Lee said, “then obviously this true authentic self presentation might lead to bad impression.” (Of course, if this is a worry, there are steps you can take to improve your work habits and productivity on your own.)


2. Setting overly ambitious goals can backfire

Entrepreneurs have a reputation for hustling and working 24/7. “Stop watching fucking Lost,” investor and Planet of the Apps host Gary Vaynerchuk wrote in 2015. “Stop watching fucking House of Cards,” he wrote again in a 2016 tweet. “Work hard, play hard” is a such common Silicon Valley mantra, so much so that it appears on job applications. And it’s not just startups or tech companies: Across U.S. industries there is evidence that workplace expectations have intensified in recent years (to the detriment of work-life balance).

But is this overachiever mentality smart? Alas, shooting for the stars in hopes of landing on the moon isn’t actually the right approach for many workers, new research suggests, and knowing your true abilities might be as important as knowing yourself. A paper from researchers in Australia and the United States found that when organizations try to use so-called “stretch goals” for their employees — i.e., objectives that are especially difficult to achieve — those may lead to more inconsistent results across different workers, undermine how well some do in the long-term and “generate lower risk-adjusted performance” compared with realistic goals.

The researchers took two groups of students — one enrolled in a MBA program and another group of mostly undergraduates — and had them complete a computer program that simulated the experience of running a startup airline. Some students got stretch goals for how much profit to shoot for in the simulation, and some got more moderate targets.

What the authors found was that there was little difference between the two groups’ outcomes, and no statistically significant benefit to aiming above and beyond: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, we find no positive stretch goal main effect on performance,” the researchers noted in their paper.

The one exception was among a few high performers who actually benefited from the stretch goals — about one in five among the MBA group and one in 10 among the second group. Yet “we find no positive main effect of stretch goals on performance because only a few performers meet or exceed the stretch goals,” the study noted, “with the rest ending up either far below the stretch goals or near bankruptcy.”

In short, the realistic objectives made more sense for most people. “Moderate goals are easier to achieve, so goal commitment for these participants remains high,” the authors wrote. When most people face an unrealistic goal, they tend to make their own internal goal, and strive for that instead, the study found.

The takeaway? If your boss gives you a task that seems unattainable, say so (diplomatically) — and propose a more realistic timeline. This will be good for both your sanity and your employer’s bottom line.

3. You can actually use “negative” traits — like anxiety — to get ahead

In some cases, even so-called “negative” traits can be helpful on the job. Take salespeople, for example: Some hiring research suggests that workers who are successful at sales tend to be more impulsive and more likely to blurt things out. While that’s not necessarily a positive quality in other contexts, reacting quickly and colorfully can make it easier to close a deal with a stranger.

Another example of a superficially negative trait with potential upsides is anxiety: A 2017 study by researchers in Germany found that anxiety can actually improve your performance and outcomes.

That study — which looked at Polish undergraduates, German journalists and German adults across fields — asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with statements like “feeling anxious about a deadline helps me to get the work done on time.” As it turns out, the anxiety-motivated students got better grades and the anxiety-motivated journalists reported higher job satisfaction.

“I hope that people can understand the positive sides of negative emotions,” Juliane Strack, one of the study’s authors, told PsyPost. “Anxiety can actually provide us with a lot of energy and focus.”

What other characteristics might be blessings in disguise? If you’re not anxious or impulsive, maybe you’re easily distracted: A meta-analysis of multiple studies from researchers at Harvard found that people who scored low on something called “latent inhibition,” or the ability to screen out stimuli that are irrelevant to what you’re working on, were more likely to be creative thinkers.

So the next time a job interviewer asks you for your greatest weakness, remember that you don’t necessarily have to tell them it’s that you “work too hard,” or that you “care too much.” Instead, be real. If nothing else, they’ll respect your honesty — and you can always point out the potential upsides.

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