How to Make Sense of Challenging Experiences

If you find yourself confused, trying to make sense of events, or emotionally overwhelmed (who hasn’t?), one technique that can help is called expressive writing.

Expressive writing has a long tradition in the social sciences (starting as a method in the 1980s), most notably developed by James Pennebaker of the University of Texas.

Expressive writing is what you might expect. You write non-stop for 10-15 minutes to make sense of an emotional experience. It is often meant to be done each day over several days. It is a technique that has been used in hundreds of scientific studies, most notably to help individuals suffering from PTSD.1

In Organizational Learning and Performance, I talk about different metaphors of learning to add nuance to understanding the process of learning. One of the metaphors is of the self as a “developing author,” meaning you develop your ability to construct meaning from your experiences.2 This is the essence of expressive writing as a technique. You construct a new way of thinking about an event that can help you productively move forward.

For example, a group of professionals who had lost their jobs (with an average tenure of 20 years in the organization) were voluntarily recruited to a “Writing in Transition” project by an outplacement firm. Participants were asked to write for 20 minutes a day for five consecutive days. The prompt was to write “about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding the layoff and how their lives, both personal and professional, had been affected.”3 The participants were then tracked over eight months. Impressively, those in the expressive writing condition were twice as likely to have accepted full-time jobs over that time.

Interestingly, the individuals who engaged in expressive writing did not take more job search actions (applications, etc.) than the control group. So what accounts for their increase in receiving job offers? Seemingly they were more effective in job interviews, perhaps because they had made sense of their job loss and were less troubled by it and were therefore more effective in an interview.4 As the researchers state, “Writing about the thoughts and feelings surrounding job loss may enable terminated employees to work through the negative feelings and to assimilate and attain closure on the loss, thus achieving a new perspective.”5

Thus, expressive writing helps construct a new perspective. As the organizational psychologist, Karl Weick, states, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”6 In expressive writing, you see what you think by seeing what you write. Weick’s question attunes us to the knowledge transforming effect of writing. With expressive writing, the point is not to engage in knowledge telling (e.g “I did this, then that, then…), but by writing we construct and reframe the experience.7 At its best, we produce a more realistic, compassionate, and empowering story.

You might be skeptical, however, that simply writing about a negative event will lead to a newfound perspective. I’d largely agree, despite the evidence of the research paradigm. In writing about an event, I’d also include identifying cognitive distortions in what you wrote.

Cognitive distortions such as being overly critical of yourself (“It was all my fault”), overgeneralizing (“I am always going to fail.”), should statements (“I should have known better.”) have been outlined by many practitioners and writers in the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (see for example, Checklist of Positive and Negative Distortions). Identifying cognitive distortions helps you see your interpretations more objectively. In this way, the event will have a weaker hold over you. This accords with a summary of how expressive writing works, where some kind of “thoughtful analysis” is critical in re-interpreting events.8

And, keep in mind that the results of expressive writing do not need to be oppressively stored in journals. In fact, some research suggests that physically discarding written thoughts by ripping up the paper and throwing it away can help you “mentally discard” the thoughts as well.9

Thus, to promote learning and development, try expressive writing as a technique. Not only does it help us to construct a story to make sense of our experience but analyzing our assumptions can help us gain objectivity. It can help us learn and take productive steps forward, just as with the individuals who lost their jobs.

  1. Pennebaker, 2018; Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016
  2. Inspired by Constructive Developmental Theory, see Kegan & Lahey, 2009
  3. Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994, p. 725
  4. Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016
  5. Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994, p. 731
  6. Weick, 1995
  7. Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1987
  8. Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016
  9. see Briñol, Gascó, Petty, & Horcajo, 2012


Briñol, P., Gascó, M., Petty, R. E., & Horcajo, J. (2012). Treating thoughts as material objects can increase or decrease their impact on evaluation. Psychological Science, 24(1), 41-47.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business School Publishing.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2018). Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 226-229.

Pennebaker, J. W. & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. (3rd ed.). Guilford Press.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1987). Knowledge telling and knowledge transforming in written composition. In S. Rosenberg (ed.), Advances in applied psycholinguistics (pp. 142–175). Cambridge University Press.

Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 37(3), 722-733.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Sage Publications.

Photo Source: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

Seeing through Groupthink

We’re all familiar with the term groupthink and often invoke it when we see easy conformity. But when we are caught up in the social currents of thinking, how can we see through it? I recently saw the 2017 film Shock and Awe that recounts the story of Knight Ridder journalists and their reporting of the lead up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. It’s a case study in seeing through groupthink and the value of reason, truth, and critical thinking. Values that can help you and your organization make better decisions.1

To briefly recount: During the lead up to the Iraq invasion, most media outlets diligently reported the Bush Administration’s claims about Iraq without skeptically questioning their sources. A set of journalists—Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Joe Galloway—and newspaper editor, John Walcott, published dozens of stories that questioned the Administration’s claims. As Walcott states,

When the administration made an assertion, a lot of people wrote it down and printed it and we looked at it and said “that doesn’t make any sense. Is that true?” And we proceeded to call people. And very often, and very quickly, people said “no, that’s not true,” or “there is no evidence that that’s true,” or “they left out part of the story.”

John Walcott (Follmer, 2008)

In the aftermath of September 11th, there was pressure to conform, given the spirit of patriotism after a national tragedy. It became more difficult to be an independent voice against and within the Administration. In addition, many journalists were more concerned about faithfully reporting information from their high-ranking source to maintain relationships, rather than skeptically examining their arguments.

Walcott outlines the peril of falling into “pack behavior.” As he states:

Anyone who has covered a big story knows how easy it is to fall into pack behavior. You always worry that you don’t have what the other guy has. It takes a strong constitution to ignore the pull of the crowd…Too many journalists, including some very famous ones, have surrendered their independence in order to become part of the ruling class.

John Walcott (Abcarian, 2013)

For Knight Ridder, their skeptical reporting proved to be accurate as no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq, nor was a hidden program found. Many of the claims that supported the Administrations arguments were made by Iraq exiles who had a strong desire to see Saddam Hussein ousted, making their claims questionable. Nevertheless, the unsupported claims of Iraqi exiles made their way into many prominent news outlets.

While Landay, Strobel and colleagues weren’t the only individuals questioning the rationale for war, they were nearly alone as journalist in reporting skeptical stories. It was a lonely position without social validation. As Strobel states, “There was a period when we were sittin’ out there and I had a lot of late night gut checks where I was just like, ‘Are we totally off on some loop here?’” (Moyers, 2007).

Their skepticism proved true, but with any claim of “seeing through groupthink” is the law of large numbers. With enough people making different claims, some people are bound to be correct, based purely on probability. But that assumes all guesses are equal. The Knight Ridder journalists, however, had clear reasons to doubt the evidence. As Jonathan Landay, himself, states, he thought Saddam Hussein had WMDs until he looked into the matter more thoroughly. He says, “I simply spent basically a month familiarizing myself, with what Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs had been and what had happened to them. And, there was tons of material available on that from the UN weapons inspectors. I mean, they got into virtually everything, and their reports were online” (Moyers, 2007).

In doing this background research, Landay changed his mind based on the evidence and outlined clear reasons that such a program would have been detected and thus produced more substantial evidence for its existence. Landay and his colleagues wrote stories that there was little evidence to back up the Vice President’s claims that Saddam Hussein had resumed his efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon. As Landay wrote in September of 2002 (several months before the invasion in March 2003), “The absence of intelligence pointing to a spike in the Iraqi threat contrasts sharply with Cheney’s warnings that Saddam soon will have a nuclear bomb, could move on his neighbors or could supply a weapon of mass destruction to terrorists” (Landay, 2002).

Their stories, however, didn’t gain much traction as Knight Ridder didn’t have a voice in the newspaper markets of New York or Washington, DC. The stories produced by the Knight Ridder journalists could only run in 30 potential partnership newspapers in various cities throughout the U.S. However, the newspapers could choose not to run the stories written by Knight Ridder, which they often did, especially because the Knight Ridder stories were not in-line with the dominant narrative in many prominent media outlets. In 2013, Jonathan Landay was asked by a CNN news anchor: “How did it feel…to be the lone holdouts in this pursuit of truth and fact?” Landay responded: “‘Lone holdout’ is a good word because even some of our newspapers—we work for a chain of 30 newspapers. Even some of our own newspapers wouldn’t print our own stories” (Wemple, 2013).

In contrast to the journalists at Knight Ridder, the vast majority of high-profile media outlets were insufficiently skeptical in their reporting leading up to the Iraq invasion, including the New York Times. The New York Times even apologized to their readers for “coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been…Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged – or failed to emerge” (From the editors; The Times and Iraq, 2004).

One factor that helped the Knight Ridder journalists get the story right was that they were, to some degree, outsiders to mainstream media outlets. They didn’t rely on high-ranking sources, but instead did more painstaking work of speaking to mid-level government employees who would have less interest in conforming to the Administration’s narrative (Massing, 2004).

The journalists at Knight Ridder would eventually win numerous awards for their reporting, especially as the Bush Administration’s claims for going to war were found to be inaccurate. These awards were recognized as early as the beginning of 2004 when they were honored for stories that discredited the claims that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium in Africa (a claim that President Bush had made in the State of the Union address). (Knight Ridder Newspapers, 2004) With Knight Ridder’s reporting we see many of the hallmarks of independent thinking and how having a strong value placed on reason and truth helps one overcome the forces of groupthink. They weren’t content to simply recount the stories of those in charge, but skeptically examined claims asking if they were true. They felt the pull to conform and were concerned that they might be “off on some loop.” While they did have the social validation of each other, they were largely alone among media outlets in their skepticism of the Administration.

As individuals, what can we do differently based on understanding this case study in seeing through groupthink? The Knight Ridder team was partially successful because they were “outsiders” in the journalistic community—not concerned with pleasing high ranking sources and not worried about conforming to the dominant narrative. This is one benefit of not being in (and not trying to be in) the mainstream. Second, the team demonstrates the hallmarks of critical thinking: not blindly accepting authority, seeing there was excessive “motivated reasoning,” and digging deeper into claims by asking: Is that true?2 Critical thinking helped them see through flimsy claims. Finally, they weren’t solo individuals seeing through groupthink. They were able to support each other through the sense of invalidation that they were “out on a limb.” Similarly, find allies to help build a case that your organization may be heading in the wrong direction.

In sum, seeing through groupthink is not for the faint of heart, but being an “outsider,” relying on your critical faculties, and building social support make it more likely. And when the stakes are high, this is all the more important.

  1. The term “groupthink” was coined by Irving Janis with his 1972 publication of Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos. Janis chose the word “groupthink” to be consonant with Orwellian terms such as “doublethink.” For a review of groupthink research see Esser (1998).
  2. For an excellent overview of rationality and critical thinking see Steven Pinker’s Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems so Scarce, Why It Matters. Viking.


Abcarian, R. (2013, March 19). Iraq war 10th anniversary: A dark mark for news media. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved

Esser, J. K. (1998). Alive and well after 25 years: A review of groupthink research. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2/3), 116-141.

Follmer, M. (2008, March 28). The reporting team that got Iraq right. The Huffington Post. Retrieved

From the editors; The Times and Iraq. (2004, May 26). The New York Times. Retrieved

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Knight Ridder Newspapers (2004, February 4). Knight Ridder journalists honored for stories on war planning. Retrieved

Massing, M. (2004, February 26). Now they tell us. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved

Wemple, E. (2013, March 19). The media’s Iraq War failure. The Washington Post. Retrieved

Photo Source: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay

What is Exploratory Learning?

Why do we learn? This is the provocative question that Stanislas Dehaene asks in his book How We Learn.1 But you’ve probably never asked yourself: “Why do we learn in the first place?” As Dehaene states:

“The very existence of the capacity to learn raises questions…Why aren’t we born pre-wired, with pre-programmed software and exactly the pre-loaded knowledge necessary to our survival? In the Darwinian struggle for life, shouldn’t an animal who is born mature, with more knowledge than others, end up winning and spreading its genes? Why did evolution invent learning in the first place?” (p. xvii).

The question seems almost absurd to ask, but the answer grounds learning in adaptation. As Dehaene continues:

“The ability to learn…acts much faster—it can change behavior within the span of a few minutes, which is the very quintessence of learning: being able to adapt to unpredictable conditions as quickly as possible. This is why learning evolved. Over time, the animals that possessed even a rudimentary capacity to learn had a better chance of surviving than those with fixed behaviors” (p. xix).

On this account, learning is primarily aimed at helping us survive and thrive in “unpredictable conditions,” which, pretty much seems like life.

Adapting to unpredictable conditions is often the result of exploratory learning–which builds on the the standard distinction between exploration/exploitation in the field of organizational learning (March, 1991). Within an organization, exploration is typically the purview of R&D departments, although as an individual you can think about having “R&D” time. Exploration in your daily life is learning new things in your field and following your curiosity. Exploration is risky, however, as your efforts could ultimately lead nowhere. Just like ideas tested in R&D that don’t lead to tangible products.

Exploitation, in contrast, is engaging in the same activities, following routines, and getting tasks completed. Think of the difference between the two ‘modes’ as a ladder: Exploitation is about climbing the same ladder you’ve been on and occasionally making it stronger and more reliable. Exploration is about climbing “new walls” or altering the capacities and reach of the ladder, itself.

fMRI studies have found that exploitation is closely linked to reward centers in the brain (Laureiro-Martínez, et al., 2015).2 It’s rewarding to complete routine tasks (i.e. climbing the same ladder). Unfortunately, exploitation can also be risky. It is analogous to Dehaene’s notion of “fixed behaviors” which lock us into a response pattern. Exploratory learning, in contrast, helps us to adapt for the long-term, expanding our repertoire for “unpredictable conditions” as we explore new “walls” and expand our abilities.

The main problem most of us face is that exploratory learning tends to get cut from our schedules, just like R&D departments get cut. This doesn’t have immediate consequences, as we can exploit our current knowledge. The problem becomes our long-term ability to adapt and thrive.

In Organizational Learning and Performance, I discussed the WD-40 company and their reliance on a single product for decades. When the environment shifted with new competitors, they needed to engage in exploratory learning to expand their product base. Prior to this, they were in what Garry Ridge, the company CEO, called the “typhoon zone,” which is being caught in exploitation, where you “plan your work, work your plan,” and “you miss the review, the magic, or the learning moment” (Yemen & Conner, 2002, p. 3). To break out of the typhoon zone of exploitation, they engaged in a series of exploratory activities: training sessions, reading books about best practices, and greater sharing of lessons learned. Through this process, they expanded their repertoire of products (moving from a “brand fortress” to a “fortress of brands). They also expanded their capacities as individuals and have been thriving as a company since.

One of the main ways to engage in exploratory learning is through a discovery process of talking to “end users” or customers. Discovery is a process of “needfinding” and understanding the experiences of individuals with a sense of empathy and a “beginner’s mind.” It is exploratory learning that can lead to insights that help you adapt and thrive long-term (although it is “risky” in the sense that it takes time and may not lead to breakthroughs).

So, think of exploratory learning as fundamental to your nature (and embedded in ways of discovery new ideas). As Dehaene provocatively states, we weren’t born “pre-wired” with all the knowledge needed to survive and thrive. We learn to adapt, and exploratory learning helps you build your repertoire and knowledge for the future.

  1. Dehaene is a French neuroscientist, and the book is primarily focused on learning and artificial intelligence. It is an accessible introduction to a technical field, and he provides tangible advice to teachers with his four pillars of learning: focused attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation.
  2. You might wonder, how do you study exploration and exploitation in an fMRI machine? They used a game with four slot machines that had uncertain payouts. You could “explore” different slot machines or “exploit” your knowledge and continue playing the same machine.


Dehaene, S. (2020). How we learn: Why brains learn better than any machine…for now. Viking.

Laureiro-Martínez, D., Brusoni, S., Canessa, N., & Zollo, M. (2015). Understanding the exploration-exploitation dilemma: An fMRI study of attention control and decision-making performance. Strategic Management Journal, 36, 319–338.

March, J. G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 71-87.

Yemen, G., & Conner, M. (2002). WD-40: The squeak, smell, and dirt business. Darden Business Publishing.

Photo Source: jtpatriot/Pixabay

What Motivates a Whistleblower?

You’ve probably seen Frances Haugen in the news, as the Facebook whistleblower that shared her inside view of the company.

But what motivates a whistleblower, exactly?

In research I’ve done on independent thinking and speaking up, a key driver is often a high value placed on truth. As one person I spoke to who blew the whistle on potential data fabrication says, “Commitment to learning/discovering the truth might be my deepest value – it’s far more important to me than pain-avoidance, popularity, etc.” When asked what made him speak up in contrast to others in his lab, he responded, “Truth, man, truth. It’s science. I’ve been a scientist—Okay, I’ve loved science ever since I was a kid. I’ve been a scientist my whole adult life. This cannot happen, and in my experience, it doesn’t.”

This high value placed on “truth” is also seen in Haugen’s opening statement to the Senate subcommittee. She says:

“During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government and from governments around the world. The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages. I came forward because I believe that every human being deserves the dignity of the truth.”

Here you see her high value placed on “truth” and her desire to share it with the world. To be sure, her motivation is not singular; she was also driven by a moral concern for the harm Instagram has on teenagers and broader concerns about how Facebook is impacting our democracy. But it’s a combination of motives: People are being harmed, and people don’t know the truth.

The psychologist, Keith Stanovich, has explored the value individuals place on truth. He discusses the extent to which an individual “finds lack of rational integration aversive and is willing to take steps to rectify it.” 1 For whistleblowers, a high value placed on truth is coupled with an awareness of deception. This creates an aversive experience that motivates action. As Tom Mueller states in his book Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, “[Whisteblowers] take responsibility for seeing with their own eyes and following their individual conscience, cutting through cant and rationalization to comprehend things as they really are.”2

In addition to having a high value placed on truth, whistleblowers tend to be peripheral members of their organization: whether by choice or circumstance. This was true of one of the most well-known whistleblowers, Sherron Watkins at Enron in 2001. Jessica Uhl, a mentee of Watkins at Enron, says gender played a role for Watkins speaking up. As Uhl states, “Look at the management team: There’s not a lot of female faces up there, and there never has been…Sherron’s a vice president, so she’s obviously not an outsider, but there is a dividing line there. If you’re not part of the boys’ club, maybe that makes it a little easier to take a big risk.”3

You can also see peripheral group membership from Haugen, she joined Facebook in 2019 and from her interviews you can tell she never fully identified with the organization. This peripheral membership was fostered, in part, by her experience in other organizations such as Google. This experience allowed her to see Facebook through the broader prism of her experience; She wasn’t beholden to the cultural assumptions that had evolved at Facebook. As she tells Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes:

“When I would express concerns—like with my own team, like when I was working on civic misinformation—that we were insufficiently staffed. I was told, flat out, ‘At Facebook we accomplish impossible things with far less resources than anyone thought possible.’ I don’t think it was malevolent, but because the leaders there…often, maybe early Facebook employees, they may have never worked anywhere else. They have no context for how inappropriately resourced things are. They just keep repeating the same truisms over and over again.”

Here you see how her background allowed her to see the context as if she was an outsider. She didn’t accept the truisms as the way the world is but instead she saw the culture as an outsider. This outsider status shields you from conformity and groupthink as you have a weakened desire for group acceptance.

Hopefully most of us won’t find ourselves in situations where a crisis of conscience dictates that we need to blow the whistle. If we do, one parting piece of advice from Sherron Watkins (Watkins was one of three women named “persons of the year” in 2002 by Time magazine). She now advises anyone in a similar situation to build peer support. As she states, “If folks run into Enron-like behavior, I always suggest finding peers who will join you in your quest to correct things. Never go it alone.”4 This mirrors what is found in experimental studies of conformity, which have found that one ally dampens the fear of being independent and strengthens one’s resolve.5 It also makes your point-of-view harder to dismiss.

In sum, whistleblowers seem to be motivated by a high value placed on the “truth,” this is often manifest in a scientific mindset. Hopefully you won’t find yourself uncovering fraud or that your company is hiding the harm it knows it is causing, if you do: don’t follow rationalizations to explain away mounting evidence, believe your own eyes, foster a healthy sense of outsiderness, and if you do speak up, find allies.

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  1. Stanovich (2008) drawing upon Nozick, R. (1993). The nature of rationality. Princeton University Press.
  2. (Mueller, 2019, p. 535)
  3. (Frey, 2002)
  4. (Carozza, 2007)
  5. (For an excellent review of research, see Hewstone & Martin, 2010)


Carozza, D. (2007, January/February). Interview with Sherron Watkins. Fraud Magazine. Retrieved

Frey, J. (2002, January 25). The woman who saw red; Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins warned of the trouble to come. The Washington Post.

Haugen, F. (2021). Whistleblower says Facebook needs to declare “moral bankruptcy.” 60 Minutes Overtime. Retrieved

Hewstone, M. & R. Martin, R. (Eds.). (2010). Minority influence and innovation: Antecedents, processes, and consequences. Psychology Press.

Mueller, T. (2019). Crisis of conscience: Whistleblowing in an age of fraud. Riverhead Books.

Stanovich, K. E. (2008). Higher-order preferences and the master rationality motive. Thinking & Reasoning, 14(1), 111-127.

Photo Source: bluebudgie/Pixabay

Can Being Authentic Improve your Performance?

While “being authentic” is broadly used, we know when we are being our “true selves” or acting fake. In a prior post, I explored what it means to be authentic (link) which largely distills to alignment between an “internal sense of self and outward behavior.”1 Being authentic improves well-being, as you might guess, but new research explores how being authentic can improve your performance in high stakes interactions, such as entrepreneurial pitches and job interviews.

In their research, Francesca Gino and colleagues explore a form of being inauthentic, which they label “catering.” Catering is aiming to “match the target’s preferences, interests, and expectations”2 While not unhelpful in its moderate forms, in its extreme form catering is being overly concerned about what an individual thinks of us, and trying to act in accordance with their wishes, values, and preferences.

The problem with catering, as Gino and colleague note, is that it increases our “evaluation anxiety” and is cognitively draining. This anxiety, along with the effort of keeping our own perspectives hidden, can have detrimental cognitive effects. While that sounds plausible, the researchers wanted to test their predictions.

In one competition among 166 entrepreneurs pitching their ideas, they had individuals report their level of catering and authenticity. In the competition, there were three experienced judges deciding who would be among the 10 semi-finalists. Those reporting higher levels of catering were less likely to be chosen as a semi-finalist (r= -.18, p<.05) compared to those being authentic (r=.17, p<.05).

A second study by the same researchers found support for the “be yourself” advice often given to job candidates. Among a sample of 258 individuals in a lab study, those instructed to “be themselves” compared to those instructed to “answer the interviewer’s questions in a way that they believed met the interviewer’s expectations” had lower levels of reported anxiety and higher performance ratings. Of course, in any job interview we want to share our best qualities but excessive catering to the expectations of an interviewer can also increase our anxiety and worsen our performance.

So there is some evidence that authenticity can improve performance, but can this backfire? Certainly.

In another study on authenticity in job interviews (and a research article that vividly begins with how Anne Hathaway’s character authentically portrayed herself to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada), Celia Moore and colleagues hypothesize that being “authentic” can be a crucial difference among highly-qualified candidates (the important caveat is that it is among highly-qualified candidates).

In their research, individuals applying for a teaching position answered questions such as, “I like to be myself rather than trying to act like someone I’m not” and, “For me it’s better to be honest about myself when meeting new people, even if it makes me appear less than ideal.” An individual’s level of authenticity improved their likelihood of receiving a job offer if they were evaluated by interviewers in the 90th percentile and above. If they were evaluated in the bottom decile, authenticity decreased the probability of receiving a job offer. This finding was confirmed in a separate sample of the Legal Core, a group that helps provide legal services to the U.S. Military. Again, if they were in the top 90th percentile in their interviewer evaluation, authenticity positively predicted receiving a job offer (but not at lower percentile levels).

In Adam Grant’s excellent podcast episode, “Authenticity is a Double-Edged Sword,” he notes the positive benefits of authenticity and outlines several boundary conditions—a central one being that “authenticity without boundaries is careless.” This means that you don’t share every thought on your mind, especially your insecurities when you haven’t established your competence. For example, in a job interview you don’t want to say, “I have doubts about how successful I’ll be in this role.” Or, as an entrepreneur candidly admit, “I have serious doubts this idea will succeed.” In contrast, once you’ve established your credibility, it is safer to openly share an area you are working to improve.

It can be hard to know, however, if we’ve established credibility and are in the 90th percentile: So, should we be authentic or not? Within common sense boundaries, the research by Francesco Gino suggests that you are better off being authentic, you’ll decrease your evaluation anxiety and free up cognitive resources to improve performance. And despite the 90th percentile finding, the researchers argue that in the long-term you are better off aiming for authenticity. You are more likely to end up in a job that is a fit for who you are and be happier in the long-run.

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  1. (Cha et al., 2019, p. 634).
  2. (Gino, Sezer, & Huang, 2020, p. 85). 


Cha, S. E., Hewlin, P. F., Roberts, L. M., Buckman, B. R., Leroy, H., Steckler, E. L., Ostermeier, K., & Cooper, D. (2019). Being your true self at work: Integrating the fragmented research on authenticity in organizations. Academy of Management Annals, 13(2), 633-671.

Gino, F., Sezer, O., & Huang, L. (2020). To be or not to be your authentic self? Catering to others’ preferences hinders performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 158, 83-100.

Grant, A. (2020). Authenticity is a double-edged sword. Worklife. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from

Moore, C., Lee, S. Y., Kim, K., & Cable, D. M. (2017). The advantage of being oneself: The role of applicant self-verification in organizational hiring decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102: 1493–1513.

Photo Source: Heike Frohnhoff/Pixabay