Faking It: An Essential Management Competency

In our culture, which extols the merits of authenticity and transparency in everything from TED talks about leadership to advertisements for our food, it may seem a bit contrarian to make a case for the virtues of faking it.

But I’d like to try.


Suppose you are the manager of a busy gift store at the height of the Christmas shopping season. You are short staffed and barely keeping up with the multiple chores of retailing: stocking, selling, shipping, receiving, answering the phones, working the cash register etc. You are rushed. You are stressed. One of your key employees approaches you and tells you she has to leave immediately and she is not sure when she will be able to return because her father has just had a heart attack.

What do you feel? What do you do?

Most managers will end up doing the right thing, the only thing really, and express their sympathies and tell the employee to attend to the family crisis.

However many managers, who might naturally feel a bit panicked by being short-handed at this busy time, may inadvertently express (verbally or through their facial expression and body language) some of their anxiety and frustration about the inconvenience of covering the untimely absence.

It requires great composure and discipline to immediately prioritize an employee’s sudden personal crisis in this scenario and to shield the employee, at that moment, from your distress about having to adjust to their leaving work precipitously.

In fact, it requires faking it.

The truly skilled manager will, at this moment, be able to hide all of their anxieties about the challenges posed by the employee’s absence, in favor of “staying in character” as a sympathetic supervisor.

Let’s face it. In this situation, one way or the other, the employee is going to leave to do what their family responsibilities require.

The only choice in this situation, is whether the employee experiences the manager as being supportive at a critical juncture in their life, or whether they remember him being more concerned with his problems than theirs. The former contributes to a positive relationship and personal loyalty, the latter can lead to bad feelings.

My point is, if you are going to have to get along without the employee for a while, why not override your automatic reaction of “Oh no, what am I going to do?” and act like you are accepting it graciously.

Another example.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for maintaining desirable behaviors in the workplace, many managers are reluctant to use it because they feel that they shouldn’t have to reward employees for doing what they are already paid to do.

After talking with an employee about the need for them to improve their on time work arrivals, for example, one of the most effective things a manager can do is to make a positive comment when that employee subsequently shows up for work on time.

The manager should let them know that she notices the effort, even if she has to fake her enthusiasm.

Because it works.

Perhaps the value of faking it in the family domain is more intuitively apparent than faking it in the work environment. We have learned from painful trial and error that it’s not always wise to express every feeling and perception that emerge in the daily drama of domestic life.

We do not admire the judgement of a parent who says to his 4 year old: “Honestly, your finger painting looks like something the cat threw up.”

At work, and at home, doing the right thing sometimes means restraining emotions and impulses that can create real problems for people who have not learned the value of a well-timed and properly executed fake response.

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