‘Fake It’ and You Might Never Make It
All too often, young professionals hear the advice “fake it ‘til you make it.”
There’s an assumption that you’ll eventually succeed in your chosen field if you just project confidence and continue to press forward. However, there’s a hard limit to faking it. At a certain point, “faking it ‘til you make it” simply becomes untenable, which can have catastrophic effects for companies and their employees.
Whether it’s a team exaggerating their own effectiveness, a leader overselling the company’s potential to investors or an employee covering up one of their mistakes, “faking it” often causes bigger problems down the line. At best, you risk building a house on a foundation made of cardboard. At worst, it takes that much longer to reach your goals due to detours and a lack of expertise.
With consequences like these, how does this risky advice — and resulting questionable results — get perpetuated?
When employees feel pressured to exaggerate success and hide mistakes, it can usually be traced back to one root cause: insecurity.
Fake-it Culture Erodes Trust Within Your Organization
To prevent fake-it behavior, it’s necessary for leaders to first understand how companies develop toxic fake-it cultures. More often than not, this culture stems from a lack of trust and open communication, on both the company’s and the employee’s part.
Every day, we rely on successful communication to collaborate, build trust and innovate in the workplace. This successful communication — or lack thereof — starts with the company’s cultural norms set by leadership.
When company leaders encourage honesty and offer support to struggling employees, it builds trust. People ask for help when they need it, which leads to faster problem solving. But when leaders create an environment where employees feel like they need to impress everybody, it leads to nothing but dead ends.
A fake-it culture has serious consequences that can span across an organization. For example, people don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about their challenges and setbacks. They feel pressured to have all the answers all the time. As a result, they’re more inclined to exaggerate or even lie about the status of a project.
Over time, what started as a small exaggeration can snowball. To complicate matters, once people realize their colleagues aren’t being truthful, it can be extremely difficult to reestablish trust and mend relationships.
Create a Culture of Real Support
If “fake it ‘til you make it” shouldn’t be encouraged, what advice can leaders take to heart and share with their team members instead?
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The answer is: Be authentic. Strive to create a company culture that supports real personal and professional growth, not the illusion of it. Be true to yourself; you don’t need to be a chameleon to achieve the outcomes you’re looking for, and neither do your employees. None of us can be an expert in all areas, so we shouldn’t pretend to be. By faking it, we actually deprive ourselves of learning opportunities. Instead, get comfortable with receiving feedback and you’ll accelerate your growth.
Another way to build a supportive company culture is to not pressure yourself and others to answer questions on the spot. When people blurt out responses because they aren’t given space to consider, the wrong things can get said.
Someone’s knee-jerk answer might lead your company down the wrong path, and you’ll waste time and money backtracking when the mistake comes to light. Rather than put people on the spot, give them a chance to process their ideas. You’ll receive more accurate information than if you force people to fake their confidence in an answer.
By fostering an environment of honesty and authenticity, you can forge positive relationships between team members. Good relationships take away the fear people have of admitting that they need help, which in turn allows the company as a whole to solve problems faster, innovate more efficiently and avoid bigger mistakes in the future.
Recognize the Gap Between Intent and Impact
Creating a culture of trust goes a long way toward avoiding the toxic outcomes of a “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality. To further protect your organization, you can also make a conscious effort to recognize the gap between what you intend to do and the impact you’re actually having.
Whether you’re talking internally to employees or externally to stakeholders and the public, it’s important to remember that these audiences aren’t privy to the same information as leadership. You might know the difference between what your company is accomplishing today and what you hope to accomplish tomorrow, but they don’t. Without clearly differentiating between the two, this miscommunication can destroy trust.
One way to easily avoid this fate is by planning your company’s long-term goals consistently and incrementally. Break down the steps that will take you from where you are today to where you want to be in one, five or 10 years. Rein in expectations and be sure not to conflate goals with your current progress— this can keep everyone, from employees to stakeholders, on the same page about the company’s performance.
Shape a Culture That Helps People “Make It”
In the business world, it’s not always easy to recognize when “faking it” crosses the line. For example, you can look at a sports team and quickly see which athletes aren’t pulling their weight — it’s not so simple to spot an employee hiding their mistakes.
Fortunately, as a leader, it’s in your power to shape your company’s culture. Depending on the behaviors you reinforce, you can poison your culture or you can heal it.
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Reward people for never asking questions and you’ll only get the illusion of confidence. Expect people to always succeed and they’ll hide it when they fail.
However, by building trust, you create an honest, supportive culture. Give people the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and their team members will believe in them. Put systems in place to ensure accountability and people won’t be tempted to inflate their skillset. Create an environment that helps people “make it,” no faking necessary, and you’ll likely receive positive behavior in return.