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All too often, young professionals hear the advice “fake it till you make it.”
There is an assumption that you will eventually succeed in your chosen field if you just project confidence and keep pushing forward. However, there is a hard limit to forgery. At a certain point, “fake it till you make it” simply becomes untenable, which can have disastrous consequences for companies and their employees.
Whether it’s a team exaggerating its own effectiveness, a leader exaggerating 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 cardboard foundation. In the worst case, it takes much longer to achieve your goals due to deviations and lack of experience.
With consequences like these, how is this risky advice – and the resulting dubious results – perpetuated?
When employees feel pressured to exaggerate success and hide mistakes, it can usually be traced back to one root cause: insecurity.
A fake-it culture undermines trust in your organization
To prevent counterfeiting behavior, it is necessary for leaders to first understand how companies develop toxic counterfeiting cultures. Most often, this culture stems from a lack of trust and open communication, both on the part of the company and the employee.
Every day, we rely on successful communication to collaborate, build trust and innovate in the workplace. That successful communication—or lack thereof—starts with the company’s cultural norms set by management.
When company leaders encourage honesty and offer support to struggling employees, it builds trust. People seek help when they need it, which leads to faster problem solving. But when leaders create an environment where employees feel they have to impress everyone, it only leads to dead ends.
A false culture has serious consequences that can span the entire organization. For example, people don’t feel comfortable talking openly about their challenges and failures. They feel pressured to have all the answers all the time. As a result, they are more likely 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 that their colleagues are not being honest, it can be extremely difficult to rebuild trust and repair relationships.
Create a culture of genuine support
If “fake it till 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 have to be a chameleon to get the results you’re looking for, and neither do your employees. None of us can be experts in all areas, so we shouldn’t pretend to be. By pretending, we are actually depriving ourselves of opportunities to learn. 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 the answers because they haven’t been given the space to think, the wrong things can be said.
Someone’s nonsensical answer can send your company down the wrong path, and you’ll waste time and money backtracking when the mistake comes to light. Instead of putting people on the spot, give them a chance to process their ideas. You’ll get more accurate information than if you force people to falsify their confidence in an answer.
By fostering an environment of honesty and authenticity, you can build positive relationships among team members. Good relationships remove people’s fear of admitting they need help, which in turn allows the company as a whole to solve problems faster, innovate more effectively, and avoid bigger mistakes in the future.
Recognize the difference between intent and impact
Creating a culture of trust goes a long way toward avoiding the toxic results of a “fake it ’til you make it” mentality. To further protect your organization, you can also make a conscious effort to recognize the difference between what you I intend to to do and the impact you actually have.
Whether you’re talking internally to employees or externally to stakeholders and the public, it’s important to remember that these audiences are not privy to the same information as management. You they may know the difference between what your company is achieving today and what you hope to achieve tomorrow, but they don’t. Without a clear distinction 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 get you from where you are today to where you want to be in one, five, or 10 years. Keep expectations in check and make sure you don’t confuse goals with your current progress—this can keep everyone from employees to stakeholders on the same page about the company’s performance.
Build a culture that helps people “succeed”
In the business world, it’s not always easy to recognize when “pretending” 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 easy to spot an employee hiding their mistakes.
Fortunately, as a leader, it is within your power to shape your company’s culture. Depending on the behavior you reinforce, you can poison your culture or you can heal it.
Reward people for never asking questions and you’ll only get the illusion of confidence. Expect people to always succeed and they will 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 skill sets. Create an environment that helps people “succeed” without faking it, and you’ll likely get positive behavior in return.