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  • Writer's pictureIan Gibbs

To Bullsh*t or Not to Bullsh*t: The Ethics of ‘Fake It Till You Make It’

I had a fascinating conversation with my 12 year-old son recently about ethics or the guidelines to tell the difference between good and bad.

It was going ok until we got to the business of telling the truth which suddenly became very confusing to both of us.

For instance, consider telling a child about the tooth fairy? It's lying, but something tells me it's ethical.

And what about telling your wife her hair looks lovely when she returns from the hairdresser's, even when you think it looks awful? It's lying, but something tells me that's ethical, too.

But what about lying about your capability to do a job? If you say you can do something when you can't, is that ethical?

I can only answer 'it depends'.

But on what?

The phrase "fake it till you make it" was originally an expression for those striving for success in their professional lives. The concept is straightforward - if you act confident and competent, even if you're not, eventually you'll become confident and competent.

This is evidently true.

The only way to learn how to do something new is to try to do it repeatedly until we can.

However, is it ethical?

Clearly pretending to be a brain surgeon when you haven't a clue, is going to end badly for everyone involved. And so, at least in my books, it's unethical.

And if a new interior designer pretends to be confident when closing her first deal, then that for me is ethical, so long as she believes she can do the job to a professional standard.

But where is the grey line?

I think it's an interesting question.

So let's explore the ethics of "fake it till you make it." and see where we end up.

So in some cases, "fake it till you make it" is seen as a harmless and effective approach to building proficiency and self-confidence. It can help individuals who lack confidence or experience to take on new challenges, push themselves out of their comfort zones and achieve success that they might not have otherwise. For example, a new employee might feel nervous about giving a presentation but can act confident and knowledgeable to impress their boss and colleagues. Over time, this approach can lead to increased self-esteem and real competence.

However, on the other hand, "fake it till you make it" can be seen as deceptive and unethical. The approach requires individuals to misrepresent their skills, knowledge, or experience, which can have negative consequences for others. For example, a business owner who claims to have expertise in a certain area but is actually inexperienced can harm their clients and damage the reputation of the business. Similarly, an employee who pretends to have knowledge in a particular area but does not, can cause harm to their colleagues and the overall success of the company. In these cases, the "fake it till you make it" approach can be seen as a form of dishonesty that puts others at risk.

Another issue with the "fake it till you make it" approach is that it can lead to imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. If employees rely too heavily on "faking it," they may never truly feel confident in their abilities or feel like they deserve their success. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and low self-esteem, which can impact the overall success of the business.

The ethics of "fake it till you make it" are complex and depend on the context in which it is used. Whilst it can be an effective way to build self-confidence and achieve success, it can also be deceptive and unethical. It is important for individuals and businesses to consider the potential consequences of their actions and to be honest about their abilities and experience. Instead of "faking it," businesses can focus on building their skills and knowledge through education, training and practice. By doing so, they can achieve success in an ethical and sustainable way that benefits everyone involved.

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