The Cost Of Faking It At Work

We all have to do our fair share of acting at work. It’s called being polite. But—what happens when you’re so far out of alignment with your work?

You’ve heard that you can “fake it til you make it.” And you can—to a point. After that, the faking it takes a toll.

In a recent post on Harvard Business Review, Susan David says that while we all have to do a fair amount of acting in our lives to get by (also known as being polite), when you have to act out of alignment with how you feel too often, the stress can have negative effects. This is called emotional labor—and we all lumber under some level of it, some more than others. 

“When people habitually evoke the stress of surface acting, they’ll be more prone to depression and anxiety, decreased job performance, and burnout,” she writes. “This has an effect on others, too: Leaders who surface act at work are more likely to be abusive to their employees, by belittling them and invading their privacy, for example. 

How to lessen the emotional load

The most common reasons for surface acting, she says, include a mismatch between your personality and your role, having to act in ways that don’t align with your values, and a workplace culture that inhibits or endorses certain ways of expressing emotion. 

One thing you can do, says David, is remind yourself of why you’re doing a thing (say, to provide a steady income, access health benefits, or put in your time in one role before you move up to the next. 

But one of my favorites is, as she says, “explore ‘want-to’ thinking.” So much of our jobs, and our lives, involve have-to’s: Have to get up and drive for miles; have to stay late; have to work with someone who drives you bonkers. But if you submit to this line of thinking, it’s easy to see yourself as a victim of circumstance—the most disempowering role of all. 

Far better is to find the things you choose about your work, not just what’s put upon you. She writes that “allowing yourself to appreciate the aspects of your job that give you a charge — maybe it’s brainstorming with colleagues or making systems more efficient — elevates your work into something you choose to do, rather than something required of you.”

There will always be things you don’t want to do, maybe even loathe doing. But that’s not everything, and that’s not what your life amounts to. What aspects, actions, or opportunities in the work that you do actually inspire and engage you? How can you do more of it? What do you choose to do that makes a difference in someone else’s—your team’s, your customers’, your leaders’—lives? 

The more we decide to choose the work we do, even inside and in spite of some of the things we don’t, the more empowered a stance we create, and the more productive and aligned we can be.

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