Fake it till you make it: it’s the mantra of our times. Why do things the hard way when we can short hack our way to success? Exaggerating the truth, minimizing or changing the facts are just a few ways so many people fake it, only to sabotage themselves. The fact is, the truth always comes out. It might take a few weeks or a month or more, but when it does, you’ll be exposed, potentially ruin your reputation, and set you and your teams back.

Acting as if

Faking it has origins that are innocent enough. In the 1920s, the Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler advised patients to act as if they were confident of overcoming their inferiority complexes. It evolved into a helpful technique in modern cognitive behavioural therapy. But more recently, through social media and pop culture, “acting as if” mutated into “fake it till you make it,” taking on a life of its own, basically advising people to lie to succeed. That’s where you cross the line: doing and saying things at others’ expense for personal gain. Unfortunately, it’s become so commonplace we do it without even thinking about it. It’s like breathing.

As a public relations person in Silicon Valley and as a young CEO with little to no leadership experience, I saw a lot of fakery and made plenty of my own mistakes. I learned that leading with integrity, honesty, and authenticity are the only foundations to building and running a successful business.

Here on my Fake-O-Meter, are some examples of how we fake it so you can catch yourself and instead do things the right way and achieve long term success.

make it, don't fake it
Figure: Fake-o-Meter

Crossing the line

Most of us want to be seen as respectable. We’re anxious to make a good impression or avoid making a bad one. There’s no malice, but we easily slip into deliberate exaggeration or cover-ups.

When I was a young publicist, a client told me all about a new technology he wanted my firm to promote. I had no clue what he was talking about, but I nodded my head in bogus understanding. I somehow pulled off the project but spent a lot of extra time learning about the technology in other ways. In the moment, I lacked the confidence to ask him a question or redirect the conversation.

Sometimes in business, you do have to wing a project and hope everything works out. That can happen – but it should be the exception, not the rule. Eventually, your luck will run out, especially if your colleagues follow your example and your firm ends up with a culture of fakery.

Hot seat lies

The same is true of hot-seat lies, which I fell into in 2010. My company was recovering from the Great Recession, and we really needed to ramp up revenue. I was pitching a half-million-dollar project for a comprehensive, integrated marketing campaign. I confidently told the prospect that we had the in-house skills to carry out this complex project, as well as the bandwidth.

We won the account but struggled from the beginning. Our recommendations were off the mark, and the client lost patience with our excuses. Bit by bit, we lost pieces of that account until we lost it all, along with a chunk of our credibility. I had to replace the business I had just won and then lost, and I had to repair my team’s morale. I should have stayed grounded in our core values, faced reality about our resources, and brought in the business we could have supported more easily.

Then there’s faking it in other situations, such as lying on one’s resume, in job interviews or investor meetings. Stretching the truth might solve an immediate problem, but it adds a new kind of stress that never goes away. At any point, you could be exposed and lose much of what you’ve built up to that point. You may be consumed with anxiety over what could happen if you’re found out. Instead, do the hard work to find what is most compelling about your experience, find that angle that will differentiate your product or a different market that will want what you have to offer.

Pretending, avoiding, and procrastinating

Technically speaking, these behaviours aren’t lies at all but ignoring or escaping reality at the expense of others. Easiest to spot are “ostrich” lies, such as those I fell into after the Internet bubble burst in 2000.

Our clients were cutting their marketing budgets, and the business I had built up over ten years was evaporating. I wanted to pretend everything was okay until one of my advisors set me straight: “Hope is not a strategy. You have to protect the financial health of your company and let some people go.” Every day I didn’t announce layoffs; I was making things worse for the people I really wanted to keep. The hard thing about facing reality is that reality is often harsh. It’s tempting to look the other way, but that is faking it too. It is much more difficult to lead with integrity and face the truth, yet it is the only way to lead your team during tough times.

More intentional are minimization lies, where people shirk responsibility. Executives pursue a short-term strategy to boost profits and cook the books to postpone the reckoning. Lies of omission can be especially damaging, as Congress found when it blamed a lack of transparency in Boeing’s failure to correct the defects that led to the crashes of its 737 Max jets.

Outright Deception

Much less common, fortunately, are people who shamelessly lie to manipulate other people.  They might start as an act of desperation, but initial success makes them only intensify the fraud. This takes the form of simple fabrication, gaslighting (sowing seeds of doubt about an issue), bullying (to silence critics), all the way to elaborate Ponzi schemes such as Bernard Madoff pulled off for decades. The business world will always have a few people like that, but they aren’t representative of the more common fakery that gets the rest of us in trouble. You can still wreck a lot of damage – with customers, colleagues, and inside yourself – with other kinds of fakery.

You Can’t Fake Authentic Leadership.

Leading in today’s turbulent times is not for the faint of heart. There is tremendous fear, uncertainty, and doubt to contend with in our professional and personal communities. Next time you’re tempted to fake it for whatever reason, think again about how you might proceed more authentically.

Look at reality in the face, disarm your fear by seeking more information and organize your risk. Develop contingency plans in advance that you can use to develop new opportunities or pivot.  Consult with a safety net of mentors who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. And stay grounded in a set of core values that will keep you from straying. You have everything you need to make it because, in fact, you don’t need to fake it at all.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos.com

Sabrina Horn is an executive advisor and the author of Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success (Berrett-Koehler, 2021).