In the 1999 cult comedy “Office Space,” dissatisfied office drone Peter Gibbons spends his days bored out of his mind, working for a boss he loathes doing work he doesn’t care about. To make matters worse, he then goes home to a loveless relationship with a girlfriend who cheats on him. Through it all, he bites his tongue, never expressing his true feelings about that useless TPS report coversheet or the unfairness of the weekend work schedule.
It isn’t until he attends a hypnotherapy session, however, that he unlocks the key to doing and saying everything he’s ever wanted to do and say: He ditches the girlfriend, doesn’t show up for assignments and unleashes the truth on a pair of corporate downsizers looking to learn the truth about the company’s dysfunction. He also lets out a little aggression on some malfunctioning office equipment.
In a twist, being true to himself lands Peter on the management track, helps him snag a new love interest and then eventually -- after a little embezzlement detour -- leads him to a new job that helps him live a more authentic life.
Unlike in the movie, none of these nice things are likely to befall you should you, too, throw up your hands and let your boss and co-workers know what’s really on your mind. But you might be able to forestall some of the misery that Peter experienced simply by revealing more of your true colors, according to a recent study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Feeling inauthentic is not a fleeting or cursory phenomenon -- it cuts to the very essence of what it means to be a moral person.
Past research has shown that a certain degree of inauthenticity -- what business researchers like to call “impression management” -- can be beneficial in some situations, like nailing a job interview or providing good customer service. But Kellogg morality researcher Maryam Kouchaki argues that inauthenticity is actually very similar to dishonesty, and when pushed to an extreme, people can feel morally compromised about their core identity if they behave in a way that isn’t true to who they are.
"Inauthenticity and dishonesty share a similar root, because they are both violations of being true -- either to yourself or to others,” Kouchaki told The Huffington Post. For example, what would you say or do to fit in with new colleagues or impress a boss? If it involves agreeing with opinions or norms that go against your own personal beliefs, you could be setting yourself up to feel morally tainted. And if someone is being constantly put in a position to be untrue to their core selves, the experience could take a psychological toll, akin to the distress one could feel after committing an immoral act.
How inauthenticity makes people feel dirty
In a series of five experiments, Kouchaki assessed feelings of authenticity or inauthenticity and observed how they made participants feel and act. One experiment asked participants to write a short essay about at time they acted in a way that was either authentic or inauthentic to their core selves. Most participants who described an inauthentic situation wrote about a time that they expressed an attitude or opinion that they didn’t actually hold, simply to fit in.
Then Kouchaki asked the participants to rank their desire to use cleaning products (like Tide detergent) and participate in cleansing activities (like take a shower), mixed in with neutral products and activities like Snickers bars and watching TV. Finally, she asked the participants to fill in the blanks for words like W_ _H, SH_ _ER, and S_ _P -- words that could either be “wash" or “wish," “shower" or “shaker” and “soap" or “step," among other options.
The results pointed to participants’ desire to clean themselves. Those who wrote an essay about a time they acted inauthentically were more likely to want to use a cleaning product and also more likely to want to take a shower or wash their hands. They were also, unsurprisingly, more likely to fill in the blanks to create the words “wash,” “shower” and “soap.”
"These behaviors, products and word completions are indications that people feel morally dirty and tainted,” explained Kouchaki. “Our argument is that when you recall an inauthentic experience, you feel morally tainted and impure, and then there is an increased need for physical cleansing.”
In a follow up experiment, Kouchaki found that participants who described doing something “inauthentic” were more likely to try to compensate for this dishonesty by volunteering to help the researchers with an extra surprise survey at the end of the experiment.
“Past research has shown that when people’s self-concept is lower than average -- when you feel morally dirty, or you feel impure -- you’re more likely to balance that out through pro-social action,” said Kouchaki. "So that’s the link; When people feel immoral, they’re more likely to help so that they feel good and moral again.”
Inauthenticity at work
Kouchaki is especially interested in her research’s potential applications in the workplace, and how feeling morally impure can affect employees’ wellbeing and performance.
"In an every day workplace, there are incidents where people feel pressure to use expressions that go against their true cognitions and feelings,” she explained. “People’s experiences of inauthenticity matter, and we should think about these situations more carefully” before putting employees in these stressful scenarios.
For instance, in "Office Space," Gibbons' co-worker Michael Bolton hates any and all reference to his name being shared with that of the famous singer -- except, that is, until the corporate downsizers mention it. Fearing for his job, Michael feels forced to agree that he enjoys the singer's music as well.
Or take the character Joanna, who is encouraged at her restaurant job to "express herself" by pinning badges and tchotchkes on the suspenders of her uniform. She would never use "flair" to express herself in real life, and agonizes over utilizing the requisite number of pins she needs to conform to the restaurant's uniform code.
”Office Space” character Joanna snaps under the pressure of adding pieces of flair to the suspenders of her restaurant uniform.
"Our work shows that feeling inauthentic is not a fleeting or cursory phenomenon -- it cuts to the very essence of what it means to be a moral person,” concluded Kouchaki in a statement about her research.
And Peter Gibbons would probably agree. By the end of “Office Space,” he prepares to accept all the blame for the embezzlement scheme he hatched with his similarly depressed colleagues. A twist of fate, thanks to an even more repressed co-worker, offers Peter a second chance, which he uses to say goodbye to the soul-crushing white collar job and the $300,000 he’s embezzled. But the sacrifice is nothing compared to how good it feels working in a new job he feels honest about, alongside his friend in a construction company.
Kouchaki’s research was recently published in the journal Psychological Science.