Often when we are confronted with situations of feeling out of place or unqualified, we try to “fake it till we make it.” It doesn’t work—and trust me, I’ve tried.
Years ago, when I was in college, I had an enduring feeling of uncertainty and self-doubt. As one of four females majoring in electrical engineering, I had a fear of being stereotyped so I tried to act the part of the masculine persona typical of engineering majors. I postured and pretended, but no matter what amount of “faking it” I put out, I found myself with more self-doubt than when I started.
Even after college, in a new role at a company, I discovered that my go-to solution to the problems involved with constantly being on the outside of the “elite brass” in-circle was to, as a friend put it, act with the confidence of a “mediocre white male.” I would identify the “elite” in-circle demographic, and then act as if I were one of the insiders.
I am hardly the only person who has tried this approach to no avail. Sociologist and psychologists have found this exact type of posturing in women in mathematics and women and minorities in the workplace, and in one paper on authenticity, my colleagues and I have note that while it does provide some temporary respite, being inauthentic has negative effects on perceptions of performance in the long term.
This negative side certainly held true for me. Overwhelmingly, when I acted like a man—or how I thought a man would act—I got pushback. People saw me as aggressive. I felt superficial, came across as inauthentic and wasn’t getting the sort of support or social acceptance that my “elite brass” male peers were.
I was clearly not as proficient in my networking. Sure, I had received advice along the lines of, “You need to do that—invite people to lunch, invite them out for drinks, not just normal coffee meetings.” But in the back of my mind, I remember thinking, “Me? As a young Asian female? I should be inviting my senior male colleagues out for drinks?” I knew intuitively that I was not going to be able to pull that one off, so I didn’t even try.
But a few weeks later, I discovered that I too had the ability to make connections with senior leaders in my organization—honest and authentic connections. I was scheduled to give a presentation at an industry conference and was taking an early flight to get there. When I got off the plane, I saw the senior VP of my division and went over to say hello. He was attending the same conference and offered, “Do you want to catch a ride with me?”
Over the course of the drive, he got to know me on neutral turf where I felt confident and comfortable. There was no time pressure, no meeting for him to rush off to. We were stuck in a car for a 45-minute commute, and our conversation progressed naturally, like conversations are meant to when you’re merely trying to get to know someone with no alternate agenda. I asked him for advice on things that came up organically. And he saw that I was a smart, insightful person.
At the conference, even though he was running between meetings, he made the time to catch the last ten minutes of my presentation and then came up to me to tell me how well he thought it went. A few weeks later, he invited me to give a presentation to his internal team. To this day, he remains one of my most trusted mentors.
It’s important to remember that we all have something that others are judging us on. In the long-term, on a macro level, posturing and faking it provides only temporary value. What ends up being more long-standing is a belief that inevitably holds people back—a feeling of uncertainty and self-doubt. The fear that you will be stereotyped will be more pervasive than any amount of “elite brass” that you can channel, and you will start to anticipate situations in which you may not be as valued as you should be, in turn leading to more self-doubt.
We can’t try to cater to what we think others want, because we have no idea how to do that or exactly what they want. Instead, we have to be opportunistic and savvy in seizing chances to demonstrate who we really are, being unapologetic and confident.
>>>the writer is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School