Choosing the Role That Fits Your Authentic Self
If you’ve taken an entry-level psychology course, chances are you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological (think food and shelter), safety, social (love and belonging), esteem, and self-actualization. The premise is that lower levels of needs must be satisfied before you can purse higher levels. This theory can also be applied to your career: At some point, you should be able to move past needing any job to pay the bills to finding the right job that fits your authentic self.
But what does authenticity at work look like—and how can you tell when a potential employer might provide that environment?
The research on authenticity at work
Academic research on workplace authenticity has been more prevalent in the past few years, particularly since conversations about race and social justice have increased focus on diversity and inclusiveness. In an April 2022 blog post for the London School of Economics, researchers Odessa Hamilton and Teresa Almeida review research defining “authenticity” at work as “feeling able to express or operate in accordance with one’s genuine values, beliefs, motivations, culture, and personality, among colleagues, managers, clients, and other stakeholders equally.” They go on to examine the relationship between workplace authenticity and positive performance, observing that a mismatch between one’s self perception and external circumstances can become “cognitively laborious”—in other words, it’s exhausting not to be able to be yourself, whatever that looks like.
Hamilton and Almeida also explore “codeswitching,” which they define as adjusting one’s personal qualities to fit a particular social context. One example they share is that of a Black female professional who feels pressure to style her hair like a white colleague. Codeswitching in the workplace can become particularly draining for members of underrepresented groups.
Authenticity at work means feeling comfortable being yourself at work—with the necessary boundaries to protect your energy, of course. In an authentic workplace, it’s understood that people take risks and sometimes fail—and they learn from those experiences. And in an authentic workplace, it’s OK to have a divergent viewpoint. It’s possible to be confident in your own skill set and also celebrate the accomplishments of others.
How to identify workplaces that cultivate authenticity
All of this research sounds great, but what can you really uncover about a workplace as a job applicant? Quite a lot, it turns out. Consider the following:
- What was your experience visiting the company like? When you arrived, who greeted you, and what was their demeanor like? If you’ll be working on site or in a hybrid environment, were you able to observe other employees? Did they seem relaxed or collegial, or did they seem uptight and nervous?
- Were you allowed to interact with current employees? Did the hiring manager and human resources let you speak with potential peers to learn what they like best about their work experience? If so, did their answers seem authentic or scripted? Arranging some sort of meet-and-greet with current employees is a good sign the potential employer cares how you’ll fit in with the group.
- Does the hiring manager or human resources officer seem to “oversell” the company culture? Culture is such a buzzword these days you’ll hear about it—but again, does the description of the workplace culture seem genuine or like an infomercial?
- How did the interviewers respond to your questions about workplace culture? Now is the time to be upfront about your desire to grow professionally or the importance you place on a company’s response to certain social issues. Did the interviewers have answers at the ready, or did they fumble?
- What do the reviews say? The information available on online company review pages should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, one bad review might have been written by someone who was a bad apple. But a string of reviews with a common complaint about workplace culture could indicate a pattern.
Above all, listen to your gut. If you feel uncomfortable in the interview, odds are high you’ll feel uncomfortable as an employee, too.