Fake It ’Til You Make It?

Faking it seems to work for some, but not others.

Did he make it to where he is on merit alone? It’s doubtful.

It’s a phrase I’ve heard again and again in business settings, yet it’s trotted out as arcane wisdom every time without a thought as to what that really means. Supposedly it’s related to CBT theory, in that the more you visualise and repeat an action, you train yourself to become better at it. However, that’s not what I’ve seen in practice. Those who are “faking it” are projecting something else entirely, at least in my experience. We can break it down into three different types of behaviour: managing office politics, learning a skill, and demonstrating one’s worth.

Office Politics

So much of how we progress in the workplace is down to relationships and perceptions, and relatively little about how good we actually are, or what qualifications we hold. We already know that traditional “masculine” behaviours are seen as the norm for career and business success, and that even when women emulate these behaviours, they are still punished due to inherent gender bias of both individuals and the system.

But there’s even more to this problem. In the video linked below (it’s short and worth watching — fret not), Elisa Kreisinger speaks about how we actually reward incompetent leaders and keep out people with good leadership skills — all because we reward the fakers instead of the makers. The qualities we instinctively feel make a good leader aren’t actually the ones we should look for. But nothing is being done to change this.

Our pre-existing social structures have also ensured that those doing the faking and rising through the ranks are mostly men, and those highly qualified individuals doing the real work are more likely to be women. Highly technically competent people can find themselves pigeonholed, and instead of their hard work being recognised as something to be rewarded with promotion and more responsibility, it’s taken as a sign that they’re best being kept at that level, endlessly producing but never taking on greater challenges. By contrast, those who fit the management mould — often stale, pale and male — are judged on different characteristics, and even “fail up” the corporate hierarchy due to their limitless supply of confidence. They are the ultimate fakers, and sure, they do make their way up the food chain. It’s just that it’s off of the back of someone else’s hard work and authenticity.

Learning a Skill

If you genuinely want to become good at something, no amount of fakery is going to get you there. Sometimes people take this as the true meaning of “fake it until you make it”, in that you need to go through a number of failed and half-hearted attempts before you actually become good at something. I’m not so sure. We must not devalue the concept of practice. While some of us may have a natural aptitude for some things, all of us need to practice to either build or maintain our talents.

There are times when I want to just skip to the end of a process, like writing a 300-page novel just out of nowhere, or completing my 90,000-word thesis before I’ve even done basic research. I want to be the best version of the writer that I am, immediately, without the years of dedication and effort that are needed. It’s hard work, and you just have to deal with that, go through the process and produce the finished article when you’ve put in the hours. That’s 0% faking, 100% making.

While not all of us are undiscovered geniuses, we all have the capacity to learn. And management skills as well as technical skills can be learned. We can push ourselves to become more confident, outgoing and connected. The problem is when there’s a mismatch between the way these skills are viewed when held by people from certain groups (gender, ethnicity, race, etc). So what can we do about it?

Demonstrating Worth

We have a problem — some people are faking it, some are making it, and our collective imagination seems to be limited to these two options. Many jobs require both competence and confidence, yet trade-offs are made that look good in the short-term, but play out into large divisions often along the lines of a protected characteristic. We then hear arguments in favour of the status quo, claiming that Group X is more naturally inclined to role Y, whereas the majority group just so happens to be better suited to more exciting and well-paid work.

Many competent workers feel overlooked and left behind — and they want recognition for their abilities and money that they’ve made for their business. In less-competitive environments, or rather environments where achievement and reward isn’t a zero-sum-game, such as school or university, the message that hard work pays off is ubiquitous and followed up with a tangible benefit. But in the workplace, a different set of rules are at play. The very skills that favour girls in exam performance, like conscientiousness, effort and perfection, are the skills that will keep you in an entry-level job.

It’s heartbreakingly unfair — girls and minority students are encouraged to work harder and strive for more when in education, to attempt to fix the unequal distribution of pay and responsibility in the workforce. But the skills they are honing are not the right ones for success. The stereotypical behaviours of white boys — arrogance, banter and assertiveness — are the ones that pay in the real world. There might not be much behind the bluster, but it seems to matter less for those whose face fits. Anyone not quite like the others has to work twice as hard to move at the same pace. If you can master the balancing act of confidence and competence, then great — but what if you can’t?

At school I was a massive overachiever, an accolade I earned by doing everything that I was supposed to do. I studied hard, I took my time on coursework, I crammed for examinations. I was always top of the class. But life in the workplace was different. Care and attention will ensure you get paid and kept on, but it will also keep you within your comfort zone. While you’d like the chance to take on more responsibility and work on more exciting projects, it’s very difficult to demonstrate that you are ready, and you may even be chastised for trying. I was simultaneously told that I needed to already be doing the job I aspired to have, and to stay in my lane. I was subject to all the clichés: abrasive, insufficiently assertive, too quiet, too loud, unfeminine, too feminine. It’s a game you cannot win.

So how exactly do you demonstrate your worth in an environment where it’s assumed you have none? For me it was confusing — I felt out of my depth at first, perhaps not unusual for a graduate job. But while my academic skills were valued for churning out calculations all day, I had so much more to offer and I couldn’t see how to break in to the roles that required more than arithmetical ability. Everything felt simultaneously too easy and too hard. I had never been encouraged to really “sell” my skills, and this wasn’t something that I really picked up on until about 5 years in to my career. I had to learn this from scratch and there were no professional development opportunities to help me with this. My problem was that I knew how to make it, but I didn’t know how to fake it.

In my case, I don’t feel that my employer was as invested in my career as I was. I wish that I had been able to work on proving that my “soft skills” were up to scratch. But the problem that I, and many others, faced is that no matter how good you are it’s never enough for some people. They have their own biases and beliefs that no amount of proof will overcome. Look at it this way: 20 years ago we were saying that women struggled in their careers because they only possessed “soft skills”, and that to succeed they needed to be more like the men and improve their technical portfolio. Today, soft skills like negotiation, collaboration and organisation are the way to the top — but men are still occupying the majority of these roles and women in technical roles are overlooked because they’re perceived as not having the very qualities we chided them for in the previous generation. It’s almost as if it’s not really about the skillset…

What Does It All Mean?

The phrase “fake it till you make it” doesn’t mean that much. Good work and connections can lead to success, and these are things that are built over time. Plenty of people rise to positions well above their level of ability, and they do it through faking. But we are all in on the lie — we know that this happens and we still reward the type of behaviour that is bad for business and teams, and punish those who are good at what they do. If we want to reward and promote the best people for the job, we need to change more than just ourselves. Firstly, you can twist yourself through all the right hoops and still fail to get the approval of those with the keys to power. And secondly, we cannot do this alone. We need to dismantle the systems that discriminate against people for superficial reasons — and yes, that does scare people: the people who have the power at the moment.

In those scenarios, where absolutely nothing seems to produce the right result, you do need to look after yourself. I made the decision to go freelance, because I was sick to death of being passed over for promotion in favour of those with fewer qualifications and less experience. I hated being put down for emulating the behaviour and work ethic of those I strived to be like. And in the end, I hated that I was trying to be something that I’m not, and getting absolutely no reward for it.

If you can play the system to “fake it ’til you make it”, then good for you. Go for it, use it to your advantage and get what you want out of it. If you could do that and also change the system from within, even better. Confidence and competence do not necessarily overlap, and in many cases don’t. The “fake it till you make it” model reinforces the divide, and values different skills from different people — for unjustifiable reasons. As long as there’s a perceived division between “technical” and “managerial”, we’re destined to carry on faking it, and the ones left behind will be the most capable.

Acknowledging the nature of the framework tells us something more. All “fake it until you make it” really means is to learn the correct business language. Technical ability is gained through practice. We exist in a time where human jobs are necessary to perform only the roles that cannot be fulfilled by machines. These roles require intelligence, empathy, knowledge and communication — skills from both the “fake it” and “make it” categories. We all need to be all things, and we need employers who recognise that we all can be. The problem is bigger than you or I — no one individual can fix it; we need to change perceptions and stop rewarding style over substance.