Faking it for Feedback

Social bias is a sneaky, invisible force that sucks the life out of leaders from all walks of life. Across all industries the collective “we” have decided what makes a so-called “great leader.” We’ve decided that certain people are best suited for certain roles, and how those roles are best performed. These expectations have become norms of behaviour that are biased towards what most people have understood as appropriate. Not meeting these expectations is usually quite costly. You’d better conform to that expectation, or find a new career.

Meeting Expectations: I’ve Got Good News & Bad News

The good news is that this social bias can motivate us to change. Every time we see someone with these expected characteristics succeeding in a leadership role, we can work towards having the same successful attributes. We can become who we want to be! 

Many leaders aren’t born leaders. They become leaders. They identify what strengths they want to have, and build them into their personality through grit, perseverance, feedback and lots of practice.

What we don’t see is that, a lot of the time, successful people likely got there by… faking it. They've pretended before they've become. They've worked hard to present certain characteristics because they know those characteristics make a leader successful. 

Because that’s what is expected.

Success is admired and mistakes are to be avoided. That’s my story for certain. There is no doubt that fear of failure drove me to extremes in adopting a performance mindset. 

Consider the presumed qualities for a good leader: confident, commanding, friendly, energetic, quick-thinking, direct, collaborative, organized, solution-focused and busy getting stuff done.

As an entrepreneur, founder, or CEO, maybe you can check every item on that list. Maybe you’ve always been that person. 

But if not, you’ve likely still had to take on those traits, to identify with them — even if, underneath it all, it’s not who you really are — because it’s what everyone else expects to see. You’ve been conditioned to believe that’s what it takes to succeed. Most people buy into this expectation and push hard to exhibit socially acceptable strengths. 

And that brings us to the bad news — it can be exhausting. 

The Danger of Dealing in Strengths

Most industry leaders fit a similar profile: charismatic, self-motivated, and authoritative. 

They go out of their way to demonstrate and improve those traits and when they do, we lavish them with praise. We respect them and put them up on a pedestal. They’ve confirmed our collective bias as to what a good leader “should” be. 

These qualities become their strengths (whether they started out that way or not). And unfortunately, those we praise can become addicted to that positive feedback, often to the detriment of their authentic selves. For example, if you’re always being complimented on your direct and forthright approach to communication, why would you ever nurture and give space to your sensitivity?

But this FITTYMIT ™ approach (Fake IT Till You Make IT ) — act confident and say things directly and concisely, because it’s expected, and eventually you’ll become a confident communicator— often requires we turn our backs on who we really are and what we really need.

Over time, FITTYMIT leads to burnout and creates a massive disconnect between our public persona and our true self. Dealing in our strengths — manufactured or otherwise — burns a lot of energy. 

The positive affirmations of others can replenish the tank for a while, but we’ll eventually run out of gas because we don’t understand or appreciate what our sustaining fuel actually is. Instead, we’re addicted to the quick energy boost of being praised for our strengths. We get energized by feedback, and so perform for more of it. The energy of positive feedback is like sugar, with each praise giving us a quick hit.

But that psychological sugar can only last so long. 

The Root of the Problem

Most of us were taught in primary school that plants create energy through the process of photosynthesis. 

Consider a tall and majestic tree, with a beautiful canopy of vibrant green leaves. Those leaves are out on display, turned towards the sun, making energy, and converting sunshine into sugar.

The leaves of a tree are similar to our strengths. Leaves help us label the type of tree that it is.Our strengths help identify us as a “true” leader. And like the tree, our strengths can generate energy. We get rewarded for our strengths through affirmations. When we hear that we do a great job, we can get a rush of sugar. We feel pleasure when we get rewarded by another’s affirmation. And that’s a very good thing. 

Now picture a second tree in that same park, that at one time was just as tall and majestic. Its leaves are turning brown and dying despite it being the middle of summer. Why is this tree withering when the other is thriving? What could the problem be?

There is a good chance that this tree has a root problem. Maybe it’s not getting enough water or it’s in the wrong soil where it's getting too much or too little of a very necessary nutrient critical to its health. 

Under the surface, the roots are struggling. No one can see these roots, they get ignored in favour of the resplendent leaves. Yet, roots are the foundation of the tree's health. Without the right environment, the roots wither and the leaves suffer too. Ignore your roots at your peril. 

Digging Beneath the Surface

As an entrepreneur, if you’re addicted to praise, and constantly striving to act like a business magnate “should” act, you can find yourself in a state of constant stress. You’ll find yourself chasing the sugar high of affirmations while your true self (your roots) wither away. 

What makes this even more complicated is that people want us to be a certain way, to do the big tasks, and to be the centre of attention. In essence, we’re paid and recognized for the production of leaves. We want to be and do all of those things, but it traps us in cycles of stress, exhaustion, and burnout.

What would happen if we dug down to discover what we really need at the root level? To step out of the spotlight of our strengths, to find time to water and nourish our roots, and to truly replenish ourselves?

What You Really Need

Breaking free from social bias (being who/what people expect us to be) and unshackling ourselves from working exclusively and exhaustively in our strengths (spending all of our time on tasks and relationships that win praise whether or not they’re life giving) can be very difficult. What may be even more difficult is stripping away all of the “shoulds” to uncover who it is we really are and what it is that we really need. 

Ask yourself:

  • What do I really need right now, and how can I articulate that to myself first and then to others?
  • What are my (root) needs? 
  • How do I access them? 
  • How do I request them? 
  • How do I stand up for them in a healthy way? 

If you find these questions hard to answer, you’re not alone. You can further this work — this excavation — in a number of different ways, including:

  • Journaling. Give yourself the space to explore your thoughts and feelings, track your moods and needs, and jot down your response to certain situations. 
  • Psychometric Assessment. You can uncover your strengths and needs using a scientifically-backed approach like the Birkman Method
  • Peer Learning Group. There is safety in numbers, and two heads are better than one. A peer learning group like It’s Your Lead provides the benefit of others going on the same journey, and an experienced guide to help get you there. 

There is no quick fix, and these questions are part of a lifelong and ongoing process. To quote Shakespeare’s Polonius: “To thine own self be true.”

And to find your own self, you’ve got to dig down. Discover your roots.

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