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Being Phony at Work Is Affecting Your Career Success


A Deloitte study that analyzed sociologist Erving Goffman’s concept of “covering” found that a whopping 75 percent of American professionals are concealing certain facets of their lives in order to excel in their careers, or so they think. Here’s why that does more harm than good for an individual’s personal and professional life.

Being authentic in the workplace is the key to success

(Photo Credit: Alex/Flickr)

Goffman coined the term “covering” to describe how people go to great lengths to cover up their associations with negative or stigmatized stereotypes that, they believe, will negatively affect their career potential. In 2006, Kenji Yoshino, who is Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law and one of the legal scholar on the Deloitte study, further elaborated on Goffman’s concept and outlined four ways people cover up in everyday life:

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Appearance: Concealing concerns about how you look (e.g. dressing a certain way to fit in).

Affiliation: Covering up things that associate you to a potentially negative stereotype (e.g. mothers refrain from discussing their children with colleagues).

Advocacy: Neglecting to “stand up” for a group you associate with (e.g. refraining from defending your religious beliefs to co-workers of a different belief).

Association: (Similar to “Affiliation”) Avoiding contact with certain people as to not be too closely associated with a particular crowd (e.g. gay person refraining from taking partner to work function so he doesn’t look “too gay”).

What’s more, “[T]he percentage of respondents who stated that the practice of covering was ‘somewhat’ to ‘extremely’ detrimental to their sense of self was high: 60 percent for appearance; 68 percent for affiliation; 62 percent for advocacy; and 73 percent for association,” reports the study. In other words, a vast majority of survey participants indicated that their need to fake it to make it at work was “somewhat” to “extremely” damaging to their self-confidence. Yikes, people!

To put it into perspective, Americans spend roughly a third of their lives working, which is about 8.7 hours per day, or a third of their lives pretending to be someone else a majority of the time. Being authentic is one of the best ways to attain true happiness in life. When you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, whether at work or in everyday life, you’re actually telling yourself (and others, indirectly) that your true self isn’t good enough, hence the cover-up. It’s no surprise, then, that “covering” will take its toll eventually, because you can live a lie for only so long before it eats at you and affects your self-worth.

This issue seems to be a double-edged sword, however – a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of deal. If you choose to be your true authentic self 100 percent of the time in and out of the workplace, you might be happy, but you might also be jobless after a while. However, if you’re always covering up and trying to fit into your company’s mold, then you’ll probably be miserable and hate your job after a while.

What’s the happy medium, then? It really depends on your company’s culture and what the ground rules are there. As you can imagine, a well-to-do tech startup is going to have a much more lenient and casual culture than a high-profile investment firm, therefore being authentic will probably be more accepted at the tech firm. The point is, don’t try and fit a square peg into a round hole when it comes to pushing authenticity at your place of employment.

We’ll leave you with the pearls of wisdom from one of the study’s participants, who says: 

“I often wonder how far I can go — personally subsuming my personality in pursuit of success. It really rubs me the wrong way. As a creative, innovative person, I feel like I am being asked to choose between being a three-dimensional authentic person and a two-dimensional cardboard cutout that walks and talks like a corporate executive in exchange for the keys to the kingdom.” 

The choice is yours.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you feel like being your authentic self at work would negatively affect your career potential? If so, share your reasons why with our community on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Leah Arnold-Smeets
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