A Harvard Psychologist Is Tirelessly Investigating Workplace Awkwardness

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Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC via Getty Images

There is a psychologist at Harvard Business School who is dutifully working away at solving one of the biggest problems facing knowledge workers today; I am speaking, of course, of the pervasive problem of awkwardness. Over the past several years, Francesca Gino has published academic papers and popular press articles dissecting the particular social discomfort associated with the workplace. Often, her work has focused on networking, or the gentle art of forming relationships with others who work in your field. She’s found, for example, that people associate networking with actual disgust; she’s also found that the activity becomes markedly more palatable if you focus less on yourself.

Her latest piece, published last week in Harvard Business Review, provides a third tip that is just as useful as the first two: Meeting someone new in a work context will go much more smoothly if only you would stop trying to guess what it is they want from you. In two experiments — one involving students in a laboratory setting and the other involving actual entrepreneurs — Gino and her colleagues find that “catering to another person’s interests and expectations, as opposed to behaving authentically, harms performance.” For the study on entrepreneurs, for example, the researchers examined real pitches to potential investors, and found that when entrepreneurs tried to shape their pitches around what they believed their investors wanted, they were less likely to receive funding than those who simply stuck to a truthful depiction of themselves and their ideas.

Likewise, in the lab study, the researchers held a mock job interview, and either told the participating students to try to mold themselves to what it seemed like their interviewer wanted (they called that the “catering” condition) or to behave normally, by presenting their strengths honestly and accurately (this they called the “authenticity” condition). The “interviewer” in this case was a study volunteer, too, who wasn’t aware of the purpose of the research. More often than not, the students cast in the role of interviewer told researchers that they’d be less likely to offer the job to the students in the “catering” condition.

One explanation for this: People are generally pretty bad at guessing at what’s going on in someone else’s head. Research has suggested, for example, that your understanding of what others think of you is more informed by your own opinions of yourself than the feedback that others provide. (Perhaps this can help explain the depressing study out this summer, which announced that “Half Your Friends Probably Don’t Think of You As a Friend.”)

Beyond that, in the fake job-interview experiment, the interviewees were also asked how nervous they felt, and those in the catering condition reported more anxiety than those in the authenticity condition. So: Trying to guess what a job interviewer or potential investor wants out of you will probably make you nervous, and, chances are, you’ll guess wrong, anyway. As so often is the case, the best advice is the simplest — just be you. Or, at least, a slightly-more-pulled-together and generally-on-top-of-things version of you.

This Harvard Psychologist Is Studying Workplace Awkwardness