fake it til you make it

It’s only February, but 2019 already has a bit of a theme. It ran through the banking royal commission, the viral and well-documented failure of Fyre Festival, not to mention the revelation that Facebook had been turning a blind eye to children’s browsing habits.

The through line connecting all these events? Fraud. Both individual and collective; subtle and absolutely shocking.

It used to be that fraud was a bad thing. But apparently it’s not so clear anymore. Now, it thrives under a culture of “fake it ’til you make it”. This is a skill set – a culture – and a highly coveted one at that.

Just type, “fake it ’til you make it: into LinkedIn, and you’ll find there isn’t enough room on the page for all the profiles that pop up. People might as well write, “for hire: consummate obfuscator who worships confidence over competence”.

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The hard yards of success (due diligence, skill, talent) aren’t as pithy as the Insta-gratification of “fake it ’til you make it” and its related keywords,  #KillingIt, #CrushingIt and#WinningAtAllCost.

The reasons for this are myriad and depressing. But in short, “fake it ’til you make it” opens up a market. One that extends beyond the banking and finance institutions that appeared before the royal commission, and underpins many of our social and business transactions.

Dr Tracy Wilcox, a business academic from the University of New South Wales, and a pioneer of ethics and sustainability, explains.

“There’s a taken-for-granted worldview that originates in orthodox economics — that ‘it’s a jungle out there’. We need to kill or be killed. The only stakeholders that count are shareholders, and short-term measures of value. It’s so ingrained that it isn’t questioned. The idea that humans actually like to cooperate and build community is totally ignored. Couple this with dangerously skewed performance management and reward systems, and you have a perfect storm.”

She adds, “This does real damage to people, as we’ve seen, but also to the erosion of trust. People often forget that our business systems run on trust between all parties. If an institution is untrustworthy — and the fake it ’til you make it culture erodes trust — then they lose their social license to operate.”

What’s clear is that things can’t keep bungling along the way they are. There needs to be a reckoning, and Wilcox pulls no punches when it comes to what’s required to fix the more destructive instincts of culture and capitalism so obviously on display during the banking royal commission.

“This happened partly due to the dominance of alpha males in the industry,” she says. “There are still so few women and such little diversity. We need to see more women and a range of ethnicities that better match our community.

“I would also look at having stakeholder groups represented on boards, particularly customers and employee representatives. Even having one of each would bring fresh perspectives and different worldviews. One study of French companies found that where firms had directors elected by employees, profitability actually increased. But of course it’s not just about profitability … but responsibilities to society, and social licence to operate.”

Role modelling and rewarding the right behaviour is another key — regardless of sector. “I would really like to see a concerted effort by leaders and educators to remind their people that there is a human sitting on the other side … of a transaction,” Wilcox says.

“We also need to go beyond codes and professional oaths — although they’re a start. Leaders have to build cultures where it’s OK to question the status quo, to call out bad systems and practices. They need to demonstrate, by who and how they reward and promote, that ethics ‘really matters around here’.”

Thankfully, the royal banking commission — and the recent cultural commentary around misdeeds — suggest that we are in a moment where this theory could be put into practice. Society is waking up to the consequences of the grifter. The morbid fascination that follows a rogue will always be there. But what feels new is the focus on the damage they can cause; the realisation that they’re only as good as their last con.

There’s now an opportunity to step back and realise that, while hustling makes for a good story, in real life it often ends in disaster, and it isn’t something to aspire to long-term.

Risk-taking, self preservation and getting ahead are all part of human nature. But we need to strike a better balance between the expression of these impulses and ethics. Faking it ’til you make it feels like a great option, until you realise everyone around you is doing the same thing. And as we’ve seen, all that leaves is a culture of collective delusion — and disappointment.