“Be yourself” – If that is who they want you to be

A candidate applied for a management position in a large pharmaceutical company. He solicited advice from friends and colleagues and was given the traditional interview words of encouragement; “Just be yourself.” They postulated that if the job was the right job for him, a true expression of his strengths, weakness and experiences should result in a job offer. However, the company had a ruthless results oriented culture and people were becoming a means to an end. He was attracted to the company because of their reputation and their promotional literature stated their intent to be an Employer of Choice. He wasn’t in the meeting when a Sales Leader clarified this slogan by saying they wanted to be the Employer of Choice, for those people they wanted to keep. If the candidate truly wanted a job in that company, he would be better off, “being someone else.” Additionally, if he wanted to be himself, he truly needed to ask himself, is that who they wanted him to be. 

Management courses, seminars and literature extol the value of being authentic and transparent.  Our personal lives are infiltrated with messages asking us to be realistic, to keep it real or to be real. Reality means to act in alignment with our values, calling and purpose. This requires a higher degree of discipline and self awareness.  I jokingly told a manager that I was an actor and the training was helpful since I was required to act every day at work. 

Many of us have a desire to play a role for only a season, until we get what we really want out of life, people we know and organizations. This temporary arrangement is especially rampant in today’s world of uncertainty. People are worried about their finances, careers, relationships and the looming threat of unemployment. They are faced with job choices which may not be their ideal employment situation. In a parody of the Stephen Sills song, “Love the one you’re with” which was later sang by the Isley Brothers; “If you can’t be who you want to be, then be who they want you to be.” Individuals may want to be themselves, but they may not feel transparency is helpful in landing or keeping a job.

Job seekers resort to less than full disclosure to achieve their goals. I am not advocating lying on resumes or falsifying information. But people are reaching down within themselves and within their capacity to play a role in order to gain employment or maintain a job. This natural survival instinct inspires tactics that are deemed necessary in the short term. 

The phenomenon of acting out of character is not a new one. Professional entertainers are known for this trait. I remember watching actors who were titanic sex symbols on the big screen. They were larger than life, exuding confidence, courage and charisma. Some are introverts by nature. They approached their aggressive characters, as roles they had to play. During talk shows some of them were soft spoken and seemed at a loss for words, searching for the right words to extend the conversation. It occurred to me they were playing a role in the movies, as many of us do in our personal and professional lives.  Employees who perform in a similar manner would violate the adage of being themselves. They are however, still acting within themselves. 

Companies deliver employee surveys to gain a better perspective on employee engagement and employee satisfaction. Data from the surveys may be skewed if employees act and deliver what they feel the company wants to see and hear. 

Job seekers who do their homework can teach us about acting. Their strategies can allow us to be authentic and transparent. Savvy candidates reveal the following elements of their strategy: 

1. Research the company culture – speak to current and past employees

2. Examine the traits required to be a successful employee in the organization 

3. What is rewarded, in other words what does excellence or success look like?

4. Shape their responses to their experiences to match company expectations 

Finally, they adopt a persona or character in line with what is expected in the targeted organization. This is not providing false information, but structuring answers so that they legitimately give data and experiences relevant to the company. This will increase their odds of being accepted and hired 

The practice of altering our approaches is commonly done at work every day. Think about a time when a managerial edict came down which had all the earmarks of a runaway train cast in stone. You knew that this runaway train would run over anyone in its path. You wanted to be authentic and speak up and acknowledge the flaws in the program and the need to go back to the drawing board with greater input from employees to gain buy-in.  Ingenuity, if present, would have advised you to take your reservations to a sympathetic power broker and let them present your concerns. But, Survival interceded and said to step away from the tracks and cheer the locomotive on its way. Deep inside you knew that you should be yourself. But the knowledge of your company and the managers in power activated your survival mechanism and you responded, “I will be myself, but only if that is who they want me to be.”

Copyright © 2011 Orlando Ceaser

One thought on ““Be yourself” – If that is who they want you to be

  1. I remember interviewing a potential candidate with an older more experienced co-worker. The candidate was extrememly honest and in no way was he showing his “representative”. I appreciated the fresh approach and felt as though I would know exactly what I was getting by hiring the candidate. My co-worked interpreted his honesty differently and felt that he would be a handful. I beleive there is a true balance that has to take place.

    Candidates should be able to compromise between the company’s mission and their own, but they should align enough to be just that, a compromise, NOT a sacrifice.


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