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CULTIVATE OPEN MINDEDNESS

Being your authentic self is actually not ideal for creativity

A child dressed as Batman takes part in the Children's Halloween day parade at Washington Square Park in the Manhattan borough of New York October 31, 2015.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
It's good to be open to doing something, or being someone, new.
By Li Huang

Associate professor of organizational behavior, INSEAD

Published

To hear countless management thinkers tell it, success in our complex era boils down to three simple words: Just be yourself. Indeed, authenticity has been touted as the path to achieving greater happiness, and a more profitable rapport with bosses and customers.

However, researchers have produced several compelling counterarguments to all that authenticity. For example, staunchly sticking to one’s true self (which may not even exist) diminishes the ability of leaders to make valuable tradeoffs and alliances. The authenticity of leaders also can backfire when it is seen as illegitimate—a problem that particularly affects women and other leaders with “outsider” status.

My recent research reveals a perhaps even less expected downside of the authenticity cult. It turns out that creativity—which will be key to firms’ recovery from the Covid recession—may thrive on not always being true to thine own self. In fact, people can gain a creative edge when they assume physical expressions that contradict their state of mind, a phenomenon otherwise known as “mind-body dissonance” (MBD).

Measuring mind-body dissonance

MBD assumes various forms, from the team leader nodding along during an awkward presentation, to the proud manager accepting kudos with outer humility.

In a series of studies involving nearly 500 participants, I experimentally manipulated people’s emotional states and physical expressions through random assignment. For example, I asked them to think of a happy or sad experience they had gone through and to then write about it while either smiling or frowning, or to assume a high-power or low-power role while adopting a constricted or expansive posture. Participants were then assigned “unrelated” tasks such as generating novel uses for commonplace objects or drawing a creature from another planet. A pair of judges, unaware of the experimental manipulations, rated each effort on a creativity scale. The results showed a clear pattern: Participants who experienced MBD came up with more outside-the-box insights and novel ideas than those who acted “authentically,” i.e. whose facial or body expressions matched their inner feelings.

Why? MBD appears to promote a mind-set where employees become receptive to atypical ideas, which boosts creative thinking.

In earlier work, my co-author and I found that participants who experienced MBD were more open to broader, more free-floating definitions and associations, including considering garlic a vegetable or a handbag a piece of clothing. My recent work further confirmed that they also agreed more with statements such as “at this moment, I am drawn to situations which can be interpreted in more than one way,” “I would rather be known for trying new ideas than employing well-trusted methods,” and “being distinctive is very important to me.” In turn, this mindset predicted participants’ tendency to generate unconventional ideas and atypical solutions.

Nature’s gift

Connecting the dots, we can speculate that MBD creates unaccustomed tensions that cue our minds to develop novel ideas to suit an abnormal situation. Human evolution may help explain this phenomenon: Survival of the most adaptable would favor heightened sensitivity to environmental changes, as well as agile and nimble responses.

If MBD is part of nature’s gift to help humanity handle abnormality, then those who are routinely shielded from such tensions may have the most to gain. In one study, we saw the creative effect of MBD was more pronounced for people who were new to it. That suggests an especially great benefit for senior managers, whose rank and likely exposure to pro-authenticity corporate training eliminate their need and desire to be insincere.

This brings us to another shortcoming of the authenticity cult. It presumes that inauthenticity is the norm from which we need to deviate, but research suggests otherwise. First, it is difficult for humans to produce inauthentic facial expressions on demand. Second, humans strongly dislike internal contradictions such as MBD and go to great lengths to avoid them. A 2015 study confirmed that individuals who had to relive an inauthentic experience considered themselves impure and literally wanted to take a shower. Consequently, MBD may be less common than you think. And that’s good news from a creative standpoint, as it gives most employees plenty of room to reap the benefit of MBD.

The brilliance of “Undercover Boss”

Of course, the workplace is not a lab, and managers thankfully lack explicit authority to control how employees stand or sit and what facial expressions must be on display. But the essence of MBD—using physical activities to generate creativity-inducing departure from the mental status quo—can be brought to the workplace. Here are a few ideas to jumpstart your imagination.

To begin with, leaders can work as an entry-level employee, a la the reality show Undercover Boss. The bending, squatting, pushing, and pulling involved in frontline occupations (even the fabrics and cut of the uniforms), while feeling foreign and perhaps incompatible with an executive’s mental state, is likely to give them novel perspectives on their organization.

Organizations can encourage employees to work in a different culture. For months, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay left his modern kitchen, with its familiar routines and physical postures, for a globe-trotting jaunt that took him to places including a small Vietnamese village where he learned how to make rice cakes, and an Icelandic cliff where he caught puffins for food. The physical motions of balancing on (and breaking) shabby cooking stools or struggling clumsily with a bird-catching net is the kind of MBD that my research suggests can give someone like Ramsay even more of a creative edge.

In team retreats or close-knit groups of colleagues, organizations can encourage physical role-playing through improv workshops. Organizations that adopt these excursions should create a psychologically safe backdrop. Employees should feel relaxed and unjudged. It should also be emphasized to them that it is OK to feel awkward or uncomfortable—that in fact, this is the point. Starting at the top of the hierarchy can help set the tone. It will encourage everyone else to truly participate.

In short, activities that disrupt your habituated, authentic body language can trigger an unconventional mindset and help encourage creative insights and resilience.

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