Fake ItA year after being told by my coach at tennis camp that I needed to add more slime ball shots to my game for me to continue to grow as a player, I am finally starting to win more tennis matches! For those of you not familiar with the technical definition, slime balls means hitting shots that are non-traditional ground strokes such as drop shots, slices, dinks, lobs, and whatever else you can think of.  My tennis coach suggested this  because he said that while I had a very solid game, it was very predictable; I needed more variety if I wanted to keep my opponents on edge and win more.

Initially, slime balls seemed like something that people hit only if they are not very good players. In other words, I didn’t see myself as the type of tennis player who hit slime balls as it was not consistent with my identity; yet, what is most astonishing is that I am enjoying experimenting with different shots.

This dilemma – of wanting to be authentic and yet wanting to grow – is very common for anyone who wants to progress.  I see it with my coaching clients who are growing into larger roles.  This challenge is described in this month’s recommended reading from the Harvard Business Review (HBR):  “The Authenticity Paradox: Why feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth” by Herminia Ibarra where it explains how one’s careers requires all of us to advance beyond our comfort zones and the way we see ourselves.

For me to get comfortable with slime balls involved a process over the last year of watching players who are savvy slime ballers, practicing new shots in safe situations such as playing with friends, and keeping a playful mindset – to not take this too seriously.  The surprise for me is that once I added this new dimension to my game, I have been able to more quickly adapt to my opponents’ strategy versus sticking to a rigid manner of play in my tennis matches. So, given that I am not attempting to win Wimbledon, how does this process apply to the working world which is not as forgiving?

A coaching client we will call SD shared how she is struggling to deal with her retiring boss, who we will call CB.  SD is a warm relationship-oriented communications professional, groomed for success by CB to take over his division upon his retirement. SD is very grateful to CB and wants to be respectful and help him retire in a graceful manner.  But CB won’t let go of his job and SD can’t figure out how to be herself and deal with this situation which demands versatility including being firm with CB while at the same time being compassionate, setting clear boundaries with the larger team, and doing something she hates to do – ask senior leaders for help.  SD is used to being assertive and compassionate but feels that due to CB’s inability to retire gracefully she is questioning whether she has the confidence to handle the larger role.

Upon SD’s promotion, when she asked CB when and how the transition of leadership roles would happen, she was absolutely stunned to hear it would be within a year and officially occurring after he left.  She felt defeated as she realized she would have to quickly figure out how to do his job  without his help.  Mistakes would be made, things could fall through the cracks, and worse she could fail.

This situation threatened her view of herself as a consummate professional – always planning, working well with others, doing a great job and making very few mistakes. After all, she was used to cleaning up CB’s mistakes, taking a back seat, and rarely ever asking for help. She had never considered that an inflexible self-perception, retreating to what she is familiar with, could hold her back.  This awareness was the first step to accepting that she – like me was someone who would never play slime ball – had to start seeing herself differently so that she could evolve. As the HBR article describes, the people in Heminia’s experiment who held on rigidly to their technical mastery or a “perfect” model were not able to adapt as quickly to changing circumstances.

We tried a variety of experiments to help SD deal with her challenging situation.  One of the things that helped the most was practicing thinking on her feet to get her accustomed to accepting inconsistencies and being open to possibilities.   This involved playing the improvisation game – Dr. Expert, where it involves answering ridiculous questions in a credible manner.  For example, “Why do mosquitos who wear skin tight bathing suits fly faster than those who don’t?  The goal is to practice sounding credible about topics with your body language and tone of voice.  SD began this exercise with slumped body language, many “ums” and a soft voice but had very credible answers.  She was quick to speak but needed to manage her tone and body language to come across more confident.  Once she realized that she could pause and demonstrate more assertive body language – she  starting believing that she would be able to handle whatever CB could throw at her.

Most of us have a story of how we see ourselves. Mine was that I must demonstrate my beautiful tennis strokes and SD’s was that she had to present a polite demeanor and that it looked weak to ask for help.  What helped SD to expand her identity was to realize that she wanted to take on this bigger role for the sake of building a strong team and helping others to grow.  To succeed in this bigger role – she needed to make small changes in her behavior versus reinvent herself.  She would need to experiment as I did; in her case, to add more assertive communication along with asking for help from her superiors.  Once she let go of the limiting view of herself, she was able to ask the senior executives to help manage CB along with being able to ask for help in her transition.

Confident Woman The AHA moment for both SD and I is that it is perfectly normal to feel like a fake as we begin to make changes because it means that we are willing to try new behaviors to find out what is right for us in a new situation. The more curious and playful approach that can be brought – rather than a perfectionist one  – the sooner the desired result will be achieved.  For me, it is winning more tennis matches and for SD, it is succeeding in a bigger role. Where do you want to try faking it till you become it?


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