The Cost of Faking Your Personality at Work

16 Apr 1962 --- Woman holding eyeglasses and end of extremely long tape from office machine.
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Corbis

There is you, and then there is work-you. Work-you is, depending on your job, perhaps a little more outgoing and maybe a little more organized than regular-you. In short bursts, this is fine. But what happens when your job requires you to act against your natural personality for an extended period of time?

This is the question Sanna Balsari-Palsule, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at the University of Cambridge, is currently investigating. Although much of the research suggests that personality seems to be at least somewhat genetic — and therefore, potentially, fixed — people are also able to act against their natures when the situation calls for it. It’s a concept called free traits, a term coined by University of Cambridge psychologist Brian Little, with whom Balsari-Palsule is collaborating on this new project. But it comes with a price, according to Little: Suppress your true self for too long, and you risk stress, burnout and perhaps even physical health consequences.

Balsari-Palsule was curious how this concept might play out in the workplace, given the obvious pressures to act differently in the office than you do elsewhere. So she rounded up about 300 employees at a marketing firm in the U.K., asking them to complete a personality test, plus survey questions about their work life. The human relations department of the marketing firm also handed over data on these employees’ performance reviews and promotions over the years (with the employees’ permission, of course).

The results of the study are preliminary, as Balsari-Palsule is still analyzing her data. But so far, she said, it seems like extroverts suffer when they pretend to be introverts at work, and more so than introverts who pretend to be extroverts. When naturally talkative and social people had to be quiet and solitary for long periods of time at their desks, they reported less job satisfaction and more stress than the extroverts whose jobs allowed them to act like themselves. This was especially true for the younger employees at the organization. (Though the standard “correlation does not equal causation” caveat may apply here; there could be other reasons for these statistical relationships.)

Beyond job satisfaction, research has suggested that suppression of one’s natural behavior is linked with poorer health — specifically, a decrease in immune-system functioning. Your heart may start to pound and your muscles may tense, both indicators of autonomic arousal, the physiological manifestation of stress or anxiety, Little said. 

Balsari-Palsule and other researchers think this doesn’t just apply to introversion and extroversion, but to the rest of the so-called “big five” personality traits; the other four are openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism. Take conscientiousness, for example. “It is highly plausible that people regularly exhibit pseudo-conscientiousness at work, given that it is both socially desirable and a major driver of success in the workplace,” Balsari-Palsule said, adding that research has consistently shown that conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of job performance and success. So if her theory is right, then even though conscientiousness is clearly a useful thing for the non-conscientious to fake, doing so for an extended period could lead to stress or health problems. 

There’s probably a way to undo this damage, though. Little argues that it’s crucial to allow yourself some sort of restorative period, meaning time to revert back to your true self. If you’ve heard of this idea, you’ve likely heard it applied to introversion, the internet’s favorite personality trait, thanks at least in part to the success of Susan Cain’s 2012 best seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which covered some of Little’s research. “In the pop-psychology literature on introversion, you often hear things about how introverts have to ‘recharge their batteries’ after social interactions,” said Sanjay Srivastava, a University of Oregon psychologist who studies personality. “Once upon a time I got curious if that was supported by evidence — and when I went to look for studies, I had trouble finding studies that really spoke directly and definitively to that issue. It sounds like [Balsari-Palsule’s] research might be some of the first to do that.” 

Specifically, Balsari-Palsule said she found that extroverts who took time to be social during the day – for example, by going to lunch with colleagues – did seem to feel less emotional exhaustion and stress during the workday. (She’s currently running another study to determine the typical “restorative niches” introverts and extroverts use in the workplace.) For a pseudo-conscientious person, on the other hand, a restorative period may be a weekend without any fixed agenda – no commitments, no plans, Balsari-Palsule suggested. 

Without that restorative time, you run the risk of your true nature “leaking out,” perhaps in ways you don’t expect, as Little argues in his 2014 book Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being. The idea makes intuitive sense. You might meet your deadlines at work, but the self-control you spend on that means you’re a week late mailing a baby shower gift to a close friend who lives across the country, to borrow an example from my own life. (Self-control, or willpower, is widely thought to be a limited resource, though that idea has been challenged as of late.) “If such consequences accrue over time, there may be spillover effects into the workplace, leading to stress and increasing difficulty at enacting pseudo-conscientiousness effectively,” Balsari-Palsule continued. It seems you can fake your personality at work, but only for a limited time.