Sep 29 • 4 min read

People are multifaceted; it’s what makes each person unique. Someone could express themselves one way in a certain situation and differently in another. 

In the workplace, scholars have found that authenticity can improve an employee’s job satisfaction, commitment to an organization and even performance. But two researchers wanted to know more. How authentic does one need to be to succeed? And how do leaders impact their environments? 

David Brown Jr., and James Smith Jr., alumni of the Fox School’s Executive Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) program, used this rigorous research program to dive deeper into the impact of authenticity in the workplace. 

Authenticity on a spectrum

James Smith Jr., DBA ’19, went into his dissertation thinking that the more authentic someone is, the better. “I believed that one needed to be authentic to succeed and climb that corporate ladder.” 

Through his interviews and online surveys with business executives, however, Smith conceptualized the idea of authenticity existing on a spectrum. “It appeared that participants believe being authentic at work can be achieved but that it is associated with some risk,” says Smith. He found that employees felt that they had to be very aware of their organizational cultures and manager’s leadership styles in order to weigh the pros and cons of authentic expression.  

Smith’s research reinforced the idea that authenticity had positive outcomes. “If people believe that they have the support of their manager and peers, they are more likely to challenge the status quo, test expression boundaries and reveal more of their true self.” 

Shifting a leader’s perspective

David Brown Jr., DBA ’20, approached the concept of authenticity from the perspective of leadership. He started from that multifaceted idea, where people express themselves in different ways depending on their group or situation. 

“As an individual, I am expected to act in accordance with this group that I’m a part of. But the issue is that an outside observer determines whether I’m acting in accordance or not,” says Brown. 

This is, in part, why authenticity is so hard to describe; it’s a matter of perception. Whether an individual is authentic or not is up to the viewer. But Brown’s research argues that authentic leaders can be a catalyst for change. 

“What I found was that leaders who demonstrated traits of being highly authentic—meaning they had high levels of acceptance of themselves and others, high levels of transparency, less ego—when you put them into a situation, they change the environment.” 

He explains that when these “transformation enablers” provide that space for authenticity, employees feel safe to express themselves. Authentic leadership cultivates an organization with high energy, improved performance, more innovation and greater creativity. 

Diverse expressions and experiences 

But not everyone has the same opportunities for authentic expression at work. Through both their research and personal experiences, Smith and Brown discuss the specific challenges that underrepresented groups have when determining how authentic to be. 

“My results showed that demographic sensitivities at work will reduce one’s authentic expression in an organization,” says Smith. He highlights factors like race and gender, as well as management status. Smith found that the white respondents never shared that they had to change to fit into their organizations, but nonwhite respondents often reported feeling the need to “alter who they are, how they conduct themselves and how they communicate at work.” 

Smith explains that he has had similar experiences from his early days in the business world to his current career as a motivational speaker and consultant. After George Floyd’s murder last summer, Smith says he felt compelled to live more authentically and address others’ implicit biases head-on. 

Brown relays that many organizational and leadership theories are based on the decades-old workplace contexts where businesses were run by mostly the same demographic of white men. 

“What made leaders successful may no longer apply,” he says. “How we think about developing leaders requires a model that matches the needs and values of (today’s) workforce. It is time for leaders to be different.”

Virtual opportunities and pitfalls 

Like nearly every aspect of our world, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted authentic expression and leadership. “Prior to the pandemic, when we came to work, you got the person we wanted you to see,” says Smith. Now, through platforms like Zoom, many employees and leaders are bringing other aspects of their lives into work, from pictures on their walls to pets and children.

The virtual workplace creates an opportunity to get closer and inspire employees to be more authentic. “But if we’re having these Zoom calls and it’s business as usual, we have blown that opportunity,” Smith warns. 

Both Brown and Smith emphasize that organizations need to make authenticity part of their everyday operations in order to reap the full benefits. “What is measured is what gets rewarded,” Smith says. “If we are not measuring the impact of diversity and inclusion, the impact of authenticity, it’s just going to be an initiative or a season.”

AuthenticityCOVID-19DBAExecutive Doctorate in Business AdministrationLeadershipOn The VergeResearchResearch Leadership