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To thine own self be true? Maybe not at work

(Illustration for The Washington Post)

The job market may be improving, but for many people, finding the right new gig is still a huge challenge. After years of cutbacks in corporate programs, few Americans have had much on-the-j0b training at all. And even if your workplace is giving out promotions, the competition for getting one is especially stiff after years of pent-up demand.

As a result, many people must take it on themselves these days to make the leap to a bigger leadership role at work, facing their next professional move with a mix of fear, apprehension and do-it-yourself moxie. Yet trying to get ahead can be fraught with plenty of doubt and over-reliance on the past.

Herminia Ibarra, a professor at the business school INSEAD in France, has long studied career identity among the executive set, and her past book on professional transitions has been called a "seminal" work on career change. In her forthcoming book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, Feb. 10), Ibarra writes about the common mistakes people make as they're trying to step up their leadership game.

We spoke with Ibarra about the downside of "just being yourself," how her research is of particular relevance to women, and the pitfalls of honing a particular skill too much. The interview below has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. You’re critical of all the focus on “authenticity,” one of the biggest buzzwords in leadership these days. What’s wrong with it?

A. I don’t have a quarrel with the general idea of being authentic. What I have a quarrel with is the way it’s being used naively to imply that people don’t evolve. Who we are is partially where we come from (that’s how psychologists tend to see it), and what roles we play (that's how sociologists see it). But who we are as well is what we imagine ourselves to be, who we would like to be.

People moving into bigger leadership roles have a naive sense of what part they they’re supposed to play. They also have a historical sense of who they have been, which they are both attached to but also may want to break away from because they have been pigeonholed by that.

So what ends up happening to some people, because that transition is scary, is they basically say: "No, I can’t do that, because it’s not who I am." A classic example is when you start moving from being a technical expert to much more of a mobilizer of people, and you say, "Selling my ideas? That’s not me. It's political, or it’s manipulation, or it’s playing on heartstrings."

Q. Is it that they’re being naive? Or is that they’re taking the idea too literally and using it as a crutch to keep from changing?

A. Well, both. The only way you get past that naiveté is by getting outside your comfort zone and testing some of the assumptions that you might have about yourself. What if I do have more of a sense of humor? Or, what if I did have a Machiavellian streak that I could put to use here in the service of a good thing?

Q. So is it okay to fake it?

A. Faking it is a very charged word for a lot of people. You could put it that way. Oftentimes it’s not necessarily faking it, though, it’s just trying something different. When you're saying "I can do this" and you’ve never done it before, of course you’re making it up.

Obviously I’m not advocating for being duplicitous and deceitful. What I’m saying is: It’s okay when you don’t know what your best possible self is yet. The only way you’re going to figure it out is by trying varieties of it.

Q. Sheryl Sandberg talked in her book Lean In about how many women tend to feel this way, that they're 'faking it' at work. Do you think your views have special relevance to women?

A. I did a study many years ago where I looked at consultants and investment bankers as they moved into more senior client roles. These people were really good at being project managers, technical and financial analysts, but they were all scared when they were confronting clients. They were young. The clients were older and weren't wanting a spreadsheet, but a point of view.

What was really interesting is how it broke down into two different approaches. One was the "fake it 'til you make it" way, which I called the chameleon approach. These people looked at what successful senior people did, and then just did that, whether it felt right or not. I remember one guy saying it was like trying on different suits.

The other set basically said, "I’ve got to be true to myself. I’m not going to try to put on a show to impress these people. Over time they’ll get to know me and what I can deliver, and that’s that." I called them the true-to-self group.

Among men, there were both chameleons and true-to-selfers. But almost all the women were true-to-selfers, and it had career consequences for them because it didn’t look like they were getting it. What ended up happening was the female stereotype, where they just worked harder at the wrong thing — or prepared more and knew more of the content, as opposed to going out on a limb with a point of view.

It’s not that women are like this and men are like that. The reason for it was the role models [or lack thereof]. What they had to learn was very tacit stuff: how to look, how to work the room, that kind of thing. The only models the women had were men, and the way men did it just wasn’t going to work for them. It wasn’t attractive, it wasn’t feasible, and so they had fewer possibilities to draw from as they were trying to figure out what their 'way' would be. The whole authenticity dilemma is harder for women who work in settings that are fairly male dominated.

Q. Why do you think there’s so much attention these days paid to women’s careers? Is it all because of Sandberg's book?

A. I thought Sheryl’s book was great. It had that wonderful mix of her personal stories and strong academic research. The criticism that’s been leveled on it is fair enough — that it puts the burden on the woman as opposed to what the organization is going to do — but she rightly says that’s not what she was talking about.

Most of the companies I work with, it's on this particular topic. You see all the money that’s been spent, and all the energy, and the results are still pretty pitiful. The trend has not been good. But men are also increasingly in dual-career situations, so they’re faced with it as well. And they have daughters who will start to face it. So it’s become, in a way, everybody’s issue.

Q. I found a parallel to that criticism of Sandberg's book in your own — the idea that it's the individual’s responsibility to step up to these leadership roles. If talent is such an important resource, why aren't companies doing more to develop people's careers these days?

A. That’s fair. My book is very much aimed at the individual. People job hop a lot more and career change a lot more, so there is a sense that "I need to take charge of it. When the company doesn’t need me anymore, it’s just going to boot me out."

Large companies are big and bureaucratic. They can have the best systems in place, but if you’re under a boss who doesn’t help you then it’s very hard. A lot of people are in those situations. It's probably the biggest reason they come to do an MBA — to get out from under a boss who’s stifling them.

Q. What’s a competency trap? That’s a phrase from your book.

A. You enjoy doing the things that you do well, so you spend more time on them. But you get so good at doing certain things that you don’t spend time doing the things that you’re not good at. They get pushed to the back burner. Then things change, but you haven’t built up any new muscles. It’s also a problem because if you're the one doing all those things, you probably aren't developing other people to do those things.

Q. Your book also focuses on the idea of "outsight," which is that too many people think they'll reach the next level by carving out thinking time, rather than by getting out there and making change happen. 

A. You can get stuck in analysis paralysis. You don’t want to be doing that all the time, because what you need to think well is new inputs. The way you become a better strategic thinker is by putting yourself out there so you can connect the dots.

A really powerful book that came out last year was one called Scarcity by two economists. They had originally started studying poverty and the effects that not having enough money had on people. But in fact they found not having enough time had very similar effects in producing tunnel vision. People do need time, and the question is how do you most productively use it.

Read also:

What employers really want? Workers they don't have to train

Why more companies need to break the glass ceiling for minorities, too

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