There is a lot of talk these days of the need for authenticity in business. Managers need to come across as real people and encourage those working for them to assert their genuine selves at work. Part of the general trend towards reducing the barriers between work and leisure, the idea that organizations need to accept that employees have lives outside work that can sometimes impinge on their ability to fulfill their duties is seen as promoting greater honesty. The extent to which managers and, indeed, employees in general buy into this depends a lot on the individual workplace. But it is a fair bet that in a great many businesses a lot of employees spend a good deal of time pretending.
While many management experts will be lamenting the fact that these people have yet to find the work or the role that matches their passion, Marc Effron welcomes the idea that employees are ready to fake it, as he calls the practice. In fact, he makes it one of his eight key success factors for would-be leaders. In Steps to High Performance (Harvard Business Review Press), the co-author of One-Page Talent Management argues that successful managers need to be able to be somewhat chameleon-like. “This means that you may not be consistently showing the genuine you,” he writes. “That’s fine. You show others a consistent high performer instead.”
This might be a little blunt for many tastes. Indeed, Effron acknowledges that some might feel that he is calling on them to lie. His response that he is asking them to behave in a way they are not used to that leads to high performance looks a little disingenuous and one could see the over-zealous taking the notion too far. Everyone is familiar with people who display only too clearly the sorts of behaviors that Effron promotes – ensuring that they are visible to superiors, making it clear how much they have contributed to a project and the like.
More compelling is the interpretation put on Effron’s argument in the foreword to the book by Marshall Goldsmith, author of, among many others, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Goldsmith says he refers to the idea of “showing the right behaviors” – or faking it – as “showtime.” He explains: “Every night, great performers pour their hearts into each production. Some have headaches, some have family problems, but it doesn’t matter. When it’s showtime, they give it all they have. Although it might be the thousandth time an actor has performed the part, it might be the first time the audience member sitting in the fourth row has seen the production. To the true performer, every night is opening night.”
The power of this is that it neatly encapsulates the point of adopting these behaviors – to be a consistent high performer. Many teams – sporting and otherwise – have members who can turn on the style from time to time and then slip into mediocrity. That is infuriating for managers, who want people who can deliver day in day out.
Interestingly, Effron begins his chapter on faking it with the story of how the actor Adrien Brody became so consumed by his role in the movie The Pianist that he gave up his home, his girlfriend and almost all vestiges of his previous life to devote himself to being the character. Effron tells the story approvingly on the grounds that, while not every actor has to transform themselves fully to play a role, “Brody’s determination shows that it’s possible to temporarily become someone fundamentally different than you to serve a higher purpose.” Brody won an Oscar for this effort, but he has not really followed it with the same level of performance, suggesting that it is not always easy to keep up the pretence or to maintain the same degree of intensity.
I am a journalist with a special interest in all aspects of management, but especially leadership.