Whoever said you should fake it till you make it might want to reconsider that one.
Psychology researchers from the University of North Carolina recently found when workers are in meetings with their superiors, they more often hide their authentic feelings rather than sharing what they’re actually thinking and feeling. Instead they present false fronts, feign upbeat emotions, and save their true feelings for meetings with peers and lower-status employees.
This report is hardly a surprise if you ever sat in a meeting with a superior and experienced that automatic brain/mouth lock that ensures you don’t share whatever critical thoughts or feelings you might be having about the policy or process under discussion. In its place you channel a sort of neutral, compliant spirit that doesn’t make waves.
Unfortunately, this persistent pattern of behavior is seriously bad for corporate performance and a major battle in the war for engagement.
How long do you think workers will stick around when they feel that honesty is career suicide and success means being phony around their superiors?
There are limits to how long any of us can stomach being fake without developing physical symptoms or existential dread. How much productivity and innovation is lost in a culture where the one thing you can’t do is share what you’re actually thinking? How incredibly wasteful are the huge number of meetings that typify the modern company, when they are exercises in play-acting and non-communication?
Employee behavior isn’t a great mystery. They are socialized to recognize that speaking their minds openly is dangerous to their professional and personal well-being, so they don’t do it. They lie by omission and commission. Under the circumstances, you can hardly expect them to do otherwise.
So the responsibly for rectifying this situation falls on the power holders who create and maintain a work environment where the need for duplicity comes with the territory.
Most managers are not bad people who get up every the morning scheming about how to suppress their workers’ best efforts. But without intending to, they perpetuate a social system that they’ve inherited that encourages exactly that outcome.
The stories behind this problem will vary by company. There could be a legacy of hierarchy and class consciousness; employees might have to coddle the sensibilities of their thin-skinned managers; some might assume their managers by virtue of their longer experience should always dominate the air waves; or there is an existing culture of scarcity where the distribution of approval and positive regard is a zero sum game.
There are doubtless many potential underlying stories. But they produce the same results; people who have much to contribute to business success are routinely shut up and shut off. Whatever the hidden story line, it has terrible consequences: it guarantees performance outcomes that are much less than they could be.
The real solution is creating a culture that eradicates those underlying story lines, whatever they are, and creates a serious culture that champions true mutuality.
Imagine an onboarding process that preached and relentlessly enforced that everyone, regardless of role or rank, is expected to bring themselves fully and honestly to all their interactions within the company. It doesn’t mean all judgment and civility go out the window, or that the new employee has the same to offer as the old hand, but the main sin becomes not caring enough to put your best self forward or preventing someone else from doing so.
Part of that new culture would drive out fear for everyone. If you’re a manager, you’re not expected to avoid any appearance of failure; you’re expected to push the envelope, take risks, and make productive mistakes that the company learns from.
We need a mentoring culture where everyone who has supports everyone who needs. We need companies full of people who are no longer chained to outworn cultures that oblige them to fake their way through the work day, keeping the best of themselves for when they walk through the door at the end of the day.
—Michael M. Chayes, PhD, is managing principal of Sustained Leadership, LLC, a firm addressing executive leadership, culture change, and resolving business performance barriers. As a PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP partner he lead the Organization Strategy practice and was subsequently President and CEO of Stromberg Consulting Group. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.