It’s advice that’s tossed around quite often: Fake it ’til you make it.
On the surface, it sounds harmless. Put on a confident façade as you learn your way around—and eventually, you won’t have to fake it anymore.
But is it advice that you can effectively use in your career? Not always.
After being put in a number of professional situations in which I had no idea what I was doing, I’ve determined a simple rule for determining when it’s beneficial to fake it—and when it’s best to admit your weakness.
Do: When It’s a Matter of Confidence
In almost every professional role you’re in—at least, until you have several years of experience under your belt—you’re going to be tasked with responsibilities that will push you out of your comfort zone.
For example, you may be asked to give a training presentation to new hires, to speak up in front of a panel of executives when you have an idea, or, in my case, to lead weekly meetings with your employees.
And while you may very well know how to do these things in theory, you may not feel confident doing them. You may be familiar with the material for a presentation, for instance, but simply don’t love the idea of speaking in front of a group of people. Or, like me, you may have read every article out there about the ins and outs of leading meetings but are nervous about commanding a room full of your employees.
These are situations in which you have full permission to fake it ’til you make it. You have all the knowledge you need, so feigning a little courage won’t do you any harm. Putting on a brave face will not only help you get through it, it will give you genuine confidence for the next time you’re in this situation.
Don’t: When It’s a Matter of Knowledge
On the other hand, you’ll also be given responsibilities that you don’t know how to handle—down to the very core.
For example, maybe you’re asked to develop a budget forecast for the next quarter, but have zero financial experience. Or, you’re tasked with running an ad campaign from start to finish, when you really only have experience with one specific component. As a first-time manager, I remember being asked to fire an employee for the very first time—and had absolutely no idea of where to even start.
In situations in which you truly don’t know how to do something, when it comes down to basic knowledge of a task or responsibility, feigning expertise isn’t going to help you. In fact, it will likely hurt.
Simply putting on a confident face while doing an unfamiliar task won’t actually give you the ability to successfully complete that task. More likely, someone will eventually catch onto the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing and call you out on it. And then, you’ll have to waste everyone’s time starting from scratch.
Plus, if your co-workers, employees, or boss find out that you’re doing something wrong—but pretending you know how to do it—they’re going to be less likely to trust you in the future, which will limit your opportunities to lead and advance within the team.
In my example, pretending I knew how to fire someone would have been detrimental to everyone involved. Without being aware of the standard protocol, I could have easily left out vital information in my conversation with the employee, which would have created an HR nightmare (and possibly some tricky legal repercussions for the company)—and would have been confusing and unfair to the terminated employee.
This situation alone could have affected both my team’s view of me as a leader and my boss’ opinion of me as an effective manager—and could have been a wrecking ball in my career (no matter how much confidence I displayed).
In these situations, it’s a much better idea to own up to your weakness and track down the information you need before attempting the task. Once you have that knowledge, go ahead and fake it all you want.