Fake It Until You Make It

Two coworkers collaborating at a computer. June 12, 2024 By: Matthew Wheeler

Gen Xers have been reared to tolerate risk, but the next generations have a more cautious approach. How can our workforce supportively grow together?

I have been professionally over my head since day one in the working world. And it has been the key to my success—taking on new challenges without the fear of failure and instilling in my supervisors that what I do not know, I shall find. It was not until recently that I came to understand that the younger workforce has not been raised with the same risk acceptance capacity.

It is essential that contemporary leaders recognize how the current workforce assesses risk. As we continue to foster the next generation of leaders, we should look back on the skills that were imparted by the boomers, including the need to fake it until you make it; but we should be open to new ways of accepting and mitigating risk as we lead our modern and unparalleled multigenerational workforce.

Learning by Doing

Much of what we learn as professionals is hands-on and task-oriented, where we learn by doing. Until we have accepted the reins of a job, many of us struggle to grasp the concepts and overall expectation associated with the role. However, once we do it—similar to driving to a destination—our cognitive memory kicks in, and we internalize the route. Yet we must be willing to place ourselves in the role to begin with and attempt the task without all the answers or the proverbial road map.

I recently reflected on a young professional who had spent some time on my team. This person was outgoing and engaging, but my biggest disappointment was their risk-averse approach to taking on projects. I found that in many cases their ego and fear of failure guided their decision- making when it came to successfully completing a task. It felt safer to say, “I don’t know,” or perhaps, “No one has ever taught me that,” followed by a request for direction, as opposed to accepting some risk and attempting to find a suitable answer on their own. I struggled with this approach, but in retrospect, I can see my own management deficiencies. This is the point where the learning comes in—for both of us.

As a Gen Xer, I see failure in not trying something new with a chance of return. I may stumble, but I will learn from the mistake and forge ahead. I am not afraid for others to see the stumble or my need to regroup; rather, I take pride in applying lessons learned and growing from failure.

For a millennial or Gen Zer, many see the need for a risk-free work environment to ensure reputation and respective knowledge boundaries. Direction is requested, management is essential, and validation is required. All these elements reinforce a top-down hierarchical structure that the generation is keyed to abhor, which is what makes this an even larger management quandary. Yet we, the preceding generations, have created this professional paradigm and need to understand it, if we are to lead it.

The Beauty in Imperfection

As a team, we all bring assets to the collective good. Some have skills and traits more refined than others that are offset by the stronger talents of the team. It is the essential role of management to extract the best out of every team member given each person’s unique skills and capacities.

A team environment enables us to give our best while mitigating our weaknesses. We must be willing to rise to the challenge, accept some liability, and not fear the fact that the professional path ahead is not completely forged.

There is power in accepting that you do not know the answer. Many leaders are able to use this space as an opportunity to engage their team—Gauruv Gupta shared in Forbes that replying to a team inquiry with, “I don’t know, what do you think?” enables better decision-making, holistic outcomes, and it can strengthen a team overall. Why is it so hard to admit that we do not have all the answers? Is it our own hubris—the need to be seen as all-knowing? That’s certainly not the case for everyone. We just need to remind all professionals that humanity, in addition to humility, are important skills to master as a teammate. Having the grace to accept failure, and the prowess to learn from the mistake, are what strengthen our aptitude as leaders.

Working Empathetically

To my millennial, Gen Z, and soon enough, Generation Alpha colleagues, do not be afraid to take initiatives that may not immediately lead to intended outcomes. The greatest gift you can offer your boss is taking on the management and implementation of a decision. Being a professional, you have the capacity to analyze a scenario and apply your thoughtfulness toward a solution. From a mentor standpoint, I would rather help you regain your direction as opposed to dictating your road and destination.

To other Gen X administrators, remember that risk toleration comes with time and experience. Aid your younger colleagues in understanding the need to accept risk and adversity in their work. Similar to the proverbial frog in boiling water, we do not immediately jump when the water begins to warm. The key is knowing how hot we can tolerate the water getting prior to jumping out of the pot—this pertains to both leaders and team members.

Although I may have been over my head throughout my professional career, the learned art was maintaining my poker face and not letting on that I didn’t have all the answers. I took risks and built confidence among my superiors by following through and completing tasks. It’s not that I was not afraid of failure, as I certainly was, but back then, failure and imperfection were normalized.

Contemporary times have brought us great advancement, from technology to progressive ideology, but we have lost our way in accepting our shortfalls as human beings. Embracing the beauty of a graceful failure while also learning to lead a team by uttering the statement “I don’t know” are strong tools for us all to apply as multigenerational leaders—even if we still have to fake it from time to time.

Matthew Wheeler

Dr. Matthew Wheeler, CAE serves as chief executive officer of the Wheeler Company, a California-based organization management and public affairs firm.