Leadership Kryptonite: Faking It

If there is one thing that I’ve learned in the years I’ve spent in corporate America it is that there are way too many people faking it. Obviously, faking it is a non-specific term that can apply in many different situations. In this case, I’m focused on the behavior that people display when they don’t know everything that they think they should in a situation and smile, nod and pretend that they understand everything perfectly. I think we’ve all probably seen this at the lower levels where employees have less experience from which to draw. That isn’t a favorable situation to begin with, but I believe it is a much bigger problem for people as they take a few steps up the corporate ladder.

Once you’ve started making that climb you’ll find that people begin to assume that you understand everything perfectly. They assume more and more as you get higher and higher. Once you’ve climbed 3 or 4 rungs and find yourself leading more than a few people it can be very awkward when you don’t know what is going on. As embarrassing as it is to admit your ignorance to your employees you’ll find that it’s even hard to admit it to the person you’re working for. After all, this is the person that makes judgments about you and about your career. If they think you are dumb, or don’t know how to get things done then it will lead to problems down the road. As a result, many managers will go to great lengths to make their leadership believe that they are on the exact same page. If you don’t like where this is going then you’re not alone. Let’s dig a little deeper before talking about how we can break the cycle.

First, I want you to know that I’m not throwing stones in glass houses. I’ve been on both sides of this fence. I would go so far as to say that I’ve been indoctrinated into a business culture that supports and rewards this type of behavior. So yes, I’ve faked it. It’s not fun. It’s a lot like telling lies as a kid and then trying to keep track of the subsequent lies that you have to tell to keep people from figuring out the first one. Is it possible to succeed in this manner? Yes it is, but it poisons the business dynamic. As a result, when a business is trying to accomplish challenging initiatives it will find itself hamstrung by a workforce that doesn’t really know how to get the job done.

Let me walk us through a simple example to illustrate the point. Let’s say that you’re asked to lead a project that has some obvious flaws. Your first move should be pretty cut and dry, document the flaws and show how they will cause problems in the future. So you get everything documented and go tell your boss. It’s during that conversation that you realize that your boss doesn’t seem very open to changing the plan. In fact, they don’t react well at all when you bring up the problems and ask for more information to try and rethink the effort. You leave the room frustrated. Apparently you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with the flaws on your own. It sure would be nice to understand the bottom line.

See, as a good employee you realize that you need to know the bottom line, the actual reason for the work, in order to make good decisions. Unfortunately, the only person you can get this from is your manager, and they don’t seem to know. At least, you think they don’t know, but you didn’t hear that from them. They can’t actually admit their ignorance to you. Other people might find out. Because of this your discussions are like trying to talk to brick wall. Your manager can’t help you themselves but they also can’t go back up the chain to challenge the assignment themselves. If they did that, they would reveal their original ignorance to their own leadership.

Think about how big of a problem this is if an organization has this happening at multiple levels. You have a leader somewhere up the chain that sees a problem and establishes a work effort to deal with it. We are all fallible and this leader may not have seen the negative consequences that will result from this change. In an organization like I’ve described he will pass it to a direct report who won’t question it and most likely won’t see the problem either. This will happen two or three more times until it finally filters down to someone who spots the problem and tries to escalate it. The keyword is “tries” because they won’t have anyone to escalate it to. The effort has been institutionalized and if you want to stay in your leader’s good graces you will not push against that, even if it is for the good of the company. The crazy thing about it is that the original leader might very well want to know what the guy on the bottom has figured out but the layers of his own employees beneath him prevent it from happening.

Falling off the corporate ladder

Let’s pretend you’re bold though, your one of those people who doesn’t mind being admitting that you don’t know something. Things will be different for you, right? All you know is that you see a significant problem that needs to be addressed before it is made permanent.  So you push your leader to take it back upstairs to get clarification and direction. Bad move. When you hard against a leader who is worried about the consequences they will not see things your way. All they will see is that they don’t like the way you’re pushing. As part of the backlash you face a loss of status, a loss of credibility and a promotional death knell. You just can’t risk being the only person saying “no” in an organization where the correct answer is “yes”.

So what do you do? You conform, you say yes just like everybody else. Then you work your butt off to mitigate the problems yourself and figure out your own solutions to the problem. In an institutional situation like this the people who are the best troubleshooters will be the ones that are rewarded and promoted, which isn’t all bad, but at this point they’ve been indoctrinated into the culture of faking it. As a result the company has promoted yet another layer of managers who know better than to ask questions and risk their careers over it.

So what can a good leader do about it? The best leaders stand out from all of the others around them because they refuse to propagate the situation. Most times there is absolutely nothing you can do to change the infrastructure above you. But there is absolutely no reason why a good leader should allow this to pass down to their employees. Here’s how you avoid it.

Knowledge is Power – If you don’t understand the reason for an assignment it should be your primary goal to find out. You can rest assured that it will be important. One of my favorite quotes comes from the great military strategist Helmuth von Moltke. He said, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”, or as the Jonathan translation of the dictionary says – Shit Happens. When it happens you are going to have to make decisions about how to deal with it. If you don’t understand what you’re really trying to accomplish then you will not be able to adjust your plans. Remember, the assignment itself is not what you were trying to accomplish. At the end of the day, if you accomplish the real goal without doing the actual assignment it will go much better for you than if you finish the actual assignment but don’t help to accomplish the goal.

Don’t be Fake – When you don’t know the answer to something, don’t try and hide behind a veneer of superiority. That’s cowardly. Be honest, say that you aren’t sure and then try to find out. You’ll earn the respect of your staff by doing this and you will be forced to become more effective because you won’t want to seem like your ignorant all the time.

Communicate to your Staff – It’s one thing for the leader to know what needs to be accomplished. It’s a totally different thing when the whole team knows. As a leader you will not be able to be everywhere at once. There are many times that you’ll have to delegate and trust that your employees will successfully deliver what you’ve asked for. Just like you, they need to know the purpose behind the request. My staff has surprised me more than once by showing me how to get exactly what I needed without anyone having to do any extra work.

Encourage Discussion – I know it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, but good leadership is very much a two way street. When you hold open discussions with your staff you are helping them to understand the logic behind what you are doing and giving them a chance to comprehend it and internalize it. At the very least it helps their personal development and teaches them to be more successful in their own opportunities. More than that though, I can’t tell you how many good ideas came from my staff over the years. These ideas weren’t always implemented verbatim, but many times they would be spun in a different direction and created great success. Rule of thumb, even if you helped with 90% of the idea, give your employee full credit for it. It shows them that they can trust you and it doesn’t cost you anything. As the leader you’ll always been given credit in the end so don’t be afraid to share it in the beginning.

None of us like it when we see people above us in a corporate structure who look like they don’t really know what they are doing. The odd thing is that we’ll be the exact same way at that point in our careers if we don’t actively work to avoid it. To avoid it we must be vigilant and we must be willing to trust the people around us. Remember, those that give trust receive trust in return.

Be Blessed,


Posted on October 29, 2011, in Leadership Development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Aubrey Hemingway

    “Don’t be Fake – When you don’t know the answer to something, don’t try and hide behind a veneer of superiority. That’s cowardly. Be honest, say that you aren’t sure and then try to find out. You’ll earn the respect of your staff by doing this and you will be forced to become more effective because you won’t want to seem like your ignorant all the time.”

    Couldn’t have said it better. Any of it.. A festering sore that is fluid as the organization changes with new management. I think sometimes that business’s really don’t focus on who should be managers and if they truly have the leadership trait….It is all a rat race my friend.. and there is cheese for me when the work whistle blows…keep it real..Ahemi.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Alex. I’m glad you liked it.

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