THE BLOG

Why The Advice 'Be Yourself' Won't Always Work

28/06/2017 16:23 BST | Updated 28/06/2017 16:23 BST

In 2016, Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times saying that unless you're Oprah, "'be yourself' is actually terrible advice." It caused quite a stir in the comments section, with the negatives pointing out that Grant got his definition of authenticity wrong.

Grant said that authenticity depends on a personality trait called self-monitoring. Low self-monitors -- those keen to reveal their authentic selves -- are guided by their inner states, regardless of circumstances. But what if your inner state is a mess? By asking this question, you'll get the idea that you can't always be yourself in every situation. Here are a few instances in which you can ditch your authentic self and be a high self-monitor instead:

At the workplace

Regardless of your position, you can't always let your true self be seen. It sounds counterintuitive, right? But take Elon Musk for example. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO told the biographer Ashlee Vance that he had had no experience managing people prior to founding his first company, Zip2. Musk was admittedly harsh on subordinates, spouting "you are wrong" to an engineer once in a meeting. Later on, he realized that he might have been right, but he caused that person to be unproductive.

When you are in a competitive environment like the office, being your unfiltered self has its disadvantages. Acting according to your inner states can limit your growth. Instead, be a high self-monitor. Aim to be sincere -- that is, doing everything the best you can without offending anyone -- in pursuing goals for the company, your team, and yourself. That means, like Musk, you need others' opinions to validate your thoughts.

In relationships

You might ask, "So, does this mean I have to deceive my partner, my family, and my friends?" Not really. Back to Grant's op-ed piece, the writer underscored the ability of high self-monitors to absorb and adjust to social cues. They can act differently toward different types of people. They can be anything to anyone, based on that ability alone.

If being yourself means lacking tact when speaking, it may have a harmful effect on your relationships. While your desire to be accepted as you are is the ideal, you have to allow yourself to evolve as well. As e-learning company founder and Forbes 30 Under 30 Class 2017 member Sam Ovens said in an interview: "Growth is impossible if you don't want to lose yourself." As humans are social by nature, learning how to be tactful is one step away from being socially awkward or committing social suicide.

In the community

Chances are you belong to at least one community. If you're a parent, you may be a member of the parents and teachers association. If you're an environmentalist, you may be volunteering in an NGO. When you want to be identified as a liberal parent or a full-fledged eco-warrior, the advice 'be yourself' won't always work when confronting tough issues.

The woo-woo behind authenticity is that you have to find your true self and that your true self may be kind, loving, and compassionate, among others. While these qualities are aspirational, and attainable, they do not make the whole picture. Further, in joining progressive communities, you need to explore things that have nothing to do with "being yourself", like a strategy (based on data).

Conclusion

This article does not discourage you from acting on your true intentions or whatever authenticity means to you. But in the context of certain situations, you need to rein yourself in rather than setting yourself free. As Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavior professor at Insead, put it, "When we're looking to change our game, a too rigid self-concept becomes an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth."