Imagine that you are headed to a job interview, pitching your business plan, or making a presentation to colleagues. Should you try to align your words and actions to the other party's preferences and interests? Or, should you simply remain authentic? In other words, is catering to others the right strategy if you wish to persuade and influence others? Scholars Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Laura Huang asked those very questions to over 500 working adults. Two-thirds of the respondents indicated they would cater to the other party, and over 70% thought that would an effective strategy. Are they right?
Sezer and her colleagues studied that question in a series of studies. They published their results recently in a paper titled "“To be or not to be your authentic self? Catering to others’ preferences hinders performance.” The Kenan-Flager School of Business at UNC-Chapel Hill recently profiled this research. Here's an excerpt from their description:
In one study, Sezer and her colleagues recruited 258 students and working adults and split them into two groups – some serving as interviewers for a fictional job, some as interviewees. They randomly assigned interviewees to one of two strategies: Either to try to cater to the interviewer’s perceived interests or be authentic. The interviewees who were told to cater reported higher levels of anxiety. The interviewees who were told to act authentically, on the other hand, got higher performance ratings from the interviewers.
Perhaps most interesting, though, were the results of a real-world competition. Some 166 entrepreneurs participated in a fast-pitch competition at a private university in the Northeast, each striving to become one of 10 semifinalists. They presented their business ideas to a panel of three judges – experienced angel investors.
Afterward, the entrepreneurs completed a short questionnaire for Sezer and her colleagues. Likewise, the judges filled out short score cards for each pitch they heard. The entrepreneurs who chose to cater to the judges rather than acting authentically had worse outcomes – based both on whether they ended up as semifinalists and the judges’ opinion about the viability of their ideas.
Of course, this research does not suggest that you should ignore the other party's interests and preferences completely. You need to understand your audience, do your homework, and think very carefully about how they are most likely to be persuaded. However, it is a careful balancing act. It's one thing to know your audience, and it's quite another to think you can fool them about your own preferences, interests, and desires. In sum, give your audience credit. They are going to see through the B.S. in most cases. Honesty is indeed the best policy.