Having a private life is an essential right for anyone. And any business that tries to intrude on that is going to face serious pushback from society and its workers. Nobody dreams of working for a company that tracks their location 24/7 or monitors their habits via a connected Fitbit.
We also know that opening up and sharing a bit more of ourselves in the workplace can be really helpful, both for our wellbeing and how we get on with workmates.
But there’s another aspect of the self we bring to work that’s also worth exploring. The different characters and masks we’re capable of putting on that enhance our performance and wellbeing - aka. the alter ego.
Adopting a certain persona at work isn’t about deception or sycophancy. It’s a precursor to “fake-it-til-you-make-it”, a method that allows us to become new people in business before we actually become them.
Basically - fake it 'til you become it.
Be like Batman
First, we've got to think about who it is we're trying to become.
In The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life, Todd Herman explains how intentionally embracing our other selves is a highly effective way to achieve our goals.
To do this, he gives us a different perspective on one of pop culture’s most famous alter egos: Superman.
“Everyone knows that Superman and Clark Kent are the same. But which one is the alter ego?
I’ve asked this question for the past fifteen years, countless times in front of audiences around the world, and 90 percent of the audience immediately yell out, ‘SUPERMAN!’
It sounds right. Because when you think of ‘alter egos,’ you think of superpowers, heroism, and epic battles. All the qualities of a superhero like Superman.
Except – it’s wrong.
The alter ego isn’t Superman; it’s Clark Kent. Superman is the real person. He created the alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, as a useful persona to go unnoticed day-to-day on earth and blend in to help him achieve a crucial goal: understanding humans.
Superman would flip between his alter ego and the S on his chest at precisely the moments when he needed each persona the most.”
The real person is Superman, and Clark Kent is just a construct.
What if the person we play at work is our Clark Kent? Are we leaving Superman at home when we could be performing to our heroic capabilities much better?
Be like Tarzan
Amy Cuddy is famous for delivering the second most viewed TED talk of all time, Your body language may shape who you are.
In this great lecture Amy shows how power posing - standing in a confident manner, like a superhero - is scientifically proven to increase feelings of confidence. Standing with our legs apart, or beating our chest like Tarzan before a challenging situation can lower our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase testosterone - for that fear-conquering boost.
In her follow-up book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, she expands on this idea further. Presence, in Cuddy’s words, is the opposite to powerlessness - the act of grounding yourself in confidence that comes from having trust in yourself:
“Whether we are talking in front of two people or five thousand, interviewing for a job, negotiating for a raise, or pitching a business idea to potential investors, speaking up for ourselves or speaking up for someone else, we all face daunting moments that must be met with poise if we want to feel good about ourselves and make progress in our lives. Presence gives us the power to rise to these moments.”
Intentionally becoming someone with this kind of presence is going to have a major effect on our work. Cuddy's presence-building advice consists of exercises to build our personal power, rather than power over others, which is a useful skill to have. One of the most practical ones is for battling fear - instead of thinking "I'm scared" when you're facing a challenge, convert that nervous energy into something positive: "I'm excited!"
Back in my school days, I accompanied a friend to Alton Towers theme park. At the end of a fun day the only rollercoaster left was the Nemesis - a swirling, looping, intense horror-themed bad boy. The idea of going near it was terrifying to me. Supportive as always, but growing impatient with my reluctance, my buddy Hesh turned inspirational. “What would Ken Shamrock do? Be Ken Shamrock.”
Our shared love for WWE wrestling centred, at the time, around this man. Former UFC champion and ‘World’s Most Dangerous Man’ Ken Shamrock was the hardest of hard geezers, and you simply couldn’t imagine him wimping out in a theme park.
I took a moment to imagine being Mr Shamrock - a barrel of a man, at least 50% chest - and suplexed that fear into the mat for good. We went on Nemesis, loved it, and rode it again 5 more times before the park closed.
(Many years later I got to meet Ken in person while organising an event - he was surprisingly short for someone who had so much presence. Scary and inspiring.)
If we can adopt a persona - even just temporarily - to overcome an obstacle, then challenging work situations become much more beatable.
Act as if you've made it
You might think it's a bit deceptive to put on an act in the workplace. But it can actually help you achieve your goals and feel more confident in your decision-making.
Psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The As If Principle, suggests that if we want to become something (ie. successful), we have to act it, not think it:
“The notion of behaviour causing emotion suggests that people should be able to create any feeling they desire simply by acting as if they are experiencing that emotion. Or as William James famously put it, ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.’ I refer to this simple but powerful proposition as the As If principle.”
It's in stark contrast to much of the positive psychology literature out there, which tell you to think yourself happy, motivated or disciplined. The theoretical approach might get a few quick wins in the short term, but it won't work in the long-run without action.
So if we want to be a confident pitch presenter, instead of trying to think like one, we should take off our Clark Kent glasses and reveal the confident pitch presenter that was underneath all dlone.
Job interview coming up?
Scary presentation in front of the boss?
Conversation about a pay rise?
Fake it 'til you become it.