“Be Yourself” or Be Who the Customer Needs You to Be?

By Jon Miller Updated on June 6th, 2016

downloadWhether we are trying to be a better leader, team member, or individual performer “be yourself” is a common piece of advice these days. This can be good advice if one is trying too hard to do or be something that they are not good at, creating poor performance or awkwardness. Good coaches help people build on their strengths while reducing opportunities for their weaknesses to get them in trouble. Yet “be yourself” can be terrible advice for most people, says Adam Grant, management and psychology professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

He is critical of the drive for “authenticity”, or limiting the gap between how you present yourself externally and your inner self. While there are many anecdotes of people who credit their success to “being myself”, Grant illustrates in the article how too much authenticity, or unleashing of our inner selves can lead to ruin, concluding

“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”

It seems “be yourself” is terrible advice for most people, in Grant’s mind, because most people have reason to hide their terrible inner selves. On the surface this appears to be a pessimistic read on human nature. The advice to “be yourself” does not often come in a moral vacuum but rather in the context of various maxims to “do the right thing” or “do unto others” and so forth. There is potential harm in taking any advice, method or tool out of context and reducing it to a few pithy phrases. “Follow your passion, be yourself, never give up” are no exception.

Grant cites some interesting studies on the relationship between “self-monitoring” and success. Essentially, self-aware people who take their cues from people around them and adapt in helpful ways are more successful.

these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them. In a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors received significantly higher evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.

From a lean management point of view this makes sense. The habits of going to the gemba, being close enough to listen to the voice of the customer, make accommodations and adjustments, and be self-aware enough to recognize where there are faults in the system are essential to continuous improvement. This is true of both individuals, societies and enterprises. What we need to present in order to get ahead in the world is a function mainly of what others, namely customers, value. It is not enough that we “be ourselves”, we must be ourselves in ways that help others.

The ability to adapt and change is critical. “Who we are” changes as we gain experience and change. What otehrs need from us also changes. Self awareness is the ability to see gaps, or more positively, room for improvement, in our selves. If we always justify what we do and say as “I am just being myself” or as “authenticity” we are in danger of acting in ways that are not helpful within the team or social context. We insist on being authentic when it places us at risk of becoming counterproductive to oursevles and those around us. The article cites the work of Carol Dweck and the growth mindset in support of its main argument

Children who see abilities as fixed give up after failure; managers who believe talent is fixed fail to coach their employees.

It seems that being authentic, or true to ourselves, may not be as important to the customer or people we are trying to serve. When we are lucky, who we are deep inside matches who others want us to be, and the result is that we are a superstar team member, leader or artist. But even big celebrities study how their image is perceived, have teams of trainers, wardrobe people and try out different lines, looks and approaches. The audience even comes to expect this to some degree.

One of the best, and at the time most jarring, pieces of advice I received was, “I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what you believe. I care what you do.” To the customer, better a job done well inauthentically then the opposite. Over time, muscle memory of doing good and being helpful can even shape our authentic selves.

  1. Philip Holt

    June 8, 2016 - 8:52 am

    Hi Jon, once again a thought provoking article. I particularly like the ‘fixed talent’ element. Thank you!

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