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How can leaders spot it when their employees fake it?

by Joe Espana January 29, 2008

I came across a very interesting report today from Oxford Psychologists Press (OPP).  They have just reported on some European research they have conducted which makes the UK top of the European charts for 'workplace chameleons'.  According to the research 64% of UK workers (18.6 million) change their natural behaviour and put on a false personality when they walk into work.  The European average is apparently 50%, with the Netherlands at the bottom of the heap at 36%.  As you would expect, dear Hubbers, this got me thinking.

I haven't any reason to disbelieve the research, and I have often heard people say "I'm a totally different person at home", but this must be exhausting for people. And what does it say about the organisational culture and climate they work in that makes them feel they have to do this? If leaders new this, and I'm not sure many of them do, they would like me be horriffied to discover that people they worked with felt that had to put on another persona in order to 'survive' work.  Now there may be all sorts of reasons why people do this, but the sheer fact that the research suggests that such a high proportion of people in UK business feel they have to is troubling.

Taking my thinking one stage further, the research findings raise several other issues for leadership.  For one, it makes performance management rather problematic.  I have never been one for the systems and procedures that organisations devise in order to appraise and then reward people formally.  I have always been of the school of thought that says 'managing performance' is the thing that leaders should do the 363 days when you are NOT holding the appraisal review or mid year review.  Its about helping people know where they are headed, setting expectations and coaching and supporting them to achieve and grow.  If this was done well and consistently, there is an argument to have about the need for formal appraisals. Well that aside for a minute, companies do insist in having them and some companies use 360-degree feedback processes as well.

 Now think about this for a second.  Performance management and 360-degree feedback is based on observable behaviour. But if people are faking it (according to the research), how valid is our appraisal of the chamelon-like employee? The feedback in the performance review conversation would be based on somebody who is, apparently, not being authentic, so how valid is the conversation?

But back to leadership. Two principles that I have grown up with in leadership is that a) you have to really know your people, and b) you have to create a really conducive climate in order for people to give the best of themselves.  The research obviously implies that a) is going to be difficult and b) won't be a breeze either.  On the matter of climate by the way, I am reminded of a great question that I often ask when I am coaching leaders: 'What have you done to contribute to the existing situation?' It very often stops people dead in the tracks and if they are fully engaged in their coaching process, really starts to get them to dissect the situation in much greater depth and an angle they had probably not previously considered.  Very often a leader has unintentionally and unconsciously created circumstances that they would rather not have.  And I suspect that leaders and what they say and do (and not say and do) are contributory factors to the OPP research findings.

Let me hear your own thoughts on the subject.  The research document can be found on the OPP website.

Joe Espana

Performance Equations