About a month ago, I had a conversation with a client that I’ve been thinking about ever since. I had asked her to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how our body language and physical postures shape how we think and feel about ourselves. In her research, Cuddy demonstrates that open, powerful physical poses affect the levels of testosterone and cortisol in our systems, leaving us with greater feelings of power and confidence and a greater willingness to take action that involves risk.
My client reported enjoying the talk, and also feeling uneasy with Cuddy’s prescription to “fake it ’til you make it.” (Cuddy suggests practicing with what she calls “power poses” before situations that trigger nervousness and anxiety, essentially shaping your body as if you were experiencing feelings of power and confidence even when you’re not.) She said, “At what point does faking it become a problem? Doesn’t it just add to feeling like an imposter?”
I left our conversation intrigued. What does make the difference between “faking it” that results in an obvious bluster that’s easy for others to dismiss, and “faking it” that results in effective action? Is there a difference? And how does the idea of “faking it” fit with the current emphasis in leadership circles on the importance of authenticity?
As it turns out, I’m not the only person interested in these questions. A Harvard Business Review article from earlier this year, written by Herminia Ibarra, addresses the “authenticity paradox.” On the one hand, we value authenticity in our leaders. On the other, the idea of authenticity can become a trap that inhibits you from taking action to learn new skills. In this trap, if you perceive certain actions as not being “true” to who you are, you won’t take them. In the world of leadership, being unwilling to “fake it” can effectively prevent you from stepping into new roles that require unfamiliar behaviors in order to be successful.
As I reviewed Cuddy’s talk and Ibarra’s article more carefully, I developed a hypothesis. It seems to me that effective “faking” – the kind of “faking” that leads to greater future competence – requires two things: 1) conscious practice, and 2) acceptance. Let’s take a closer look at both of these.
Both Cuddy and Ibarra emphasize the importance of practice without ever really using that word. At the end of her talk, Cuddy adapts her exhortation from “fake it ’til you make it,” to “fake it ’til you become it.” Her point is that the more you behave in a certain way, no matter how uncomfortable it may be at first, the more that behavior becomes embodied and starts to feel natural. This is the essential result of practice. Conscious practice simply means being deliberate about what you’re practicing.
Ibarra, too, underlines how new behaviors that start out feeling “fake” eventually revise our sense of who we are and what we’re capable of. She writes, “learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous.” In the end, however, actions that “plunge [us] into new projects and activities…change who are are.” In other words, we make the leap from “unnatural” to “genuine”.
Ibarra describes this process as being “adaptively authentic,” and suggests that one way to develop this capacity is to “work on getting better” by setting goals for learning. Put differently, you need to consciously practice what you want to become, and this initially requires actions that may feel “fake”.
So, in order to have “faking it” lead to greater effectiveness rather than just imposter syndrome, you need to consciously engage with practicing new skills. I believe there’s a second, equally important requirement for this process to be successful, and that is to embrace and accept the discomfort that is a part of it for so many of us.
Think about a time when you have experienced doubt. Perhaps you were offered the opportunity to step into a bigger leadership role, or take on a project you’d never done before. Some people’s confidence never falters in a situation like this (or so I hear), but for many of us (particularly women) these sorts of opportunities trigger doubt. Can I really do it? Am I really ready? What if I mess it up?
This sort of fear and uncertainty is uncomfortable. Often, our human response to this discomfort is to push it away and try to cover it up. Essentially, we fear our doubts might reflect the truth about us, and this leads either to inaction, or to “faking it” in a way that can make us feel and look like an imposter.
But what happens if we embrace and accept that discomfort instead? This is different from believing the “I can’t do it” thoughts that are embedded in the doubt. Instead, it means simply noticing the thoughts, and the underlying feelings, and accepting them for what they are: thoughts and feelings that will eventually change.
If I can tolerate the discomfort without believing the thoughts, then it becomes possible to act despite the doubt. Confidence, in this scenario, comes not from knowing what I’m doing but from knowing I’m capable of acting anyway, and capable of learning from whatever results from my actions. You could call this “faking it,” but it’s qualitatively different from “faking it” in order to cover up feeling like an imposter. “Faking it” in service to practice and learning leads, in the long run, to greater effectiveness.
What about you? When have you felt like you were “faking it?” What was the result? What’s the relationship between “faking it” and confidence and learning, in your experience? I’d love to hear your comments!
Mask image courtesy of Ben Fredericson, Flickr Creative Commons