The Science Behind Why You Should Stop Saying You’re Bad At Your Job

follow your own truth

There is an old mantra that many of us use when starting a new job, or entering a new situation: “Fake it until you make it.” It’s good advice—but not for the reason many of us think.

Faking it until you make it isn’t about pretending like you’re good and hoping no one notices until you become good. It means that by faking it, you become better at what you are doing. And you convince not just yourself, but others, of that same result.

Except for the overachievers, many of us have a tendency to downplay our abilities. We are self-deprecating in meetings, or downright negative about ourselves when speaking with our bosses or peers. Better to set the bar low and exceed it, we think, that to over-promise and under-deliver.

But the truth is, if we believe, or even if we say out loud, that we aren’t good enough, that perception will soon become reality. Conversely, if we believe and say to others that we are good enough, it’s more likely that everyone will believe it too.

Here are a few examples of how we can use psychology to appear, and be, better at what we do.

The power of the illusory truth effect

The illusory truth effect is a long-held understanding that the more we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it’s true. Going back to the days of ancient Rome, leaders like Cato knew that repeating a sentiment would lead to more people agreeing with it over time. We’ve continued to see this idea play out during election campaigns and advertising ever since.

A scientific assessment of this effect was first done in 1977 in a study by Temple and Villanova. The research showed that familiarity can overpower rationality—which is crazy, if you think about it. Just because we’ve heard something before, we’re more likely to think it’s true?


Apparently, yes. And we can use that tendency to our advantage in the workplace; or, make ourselves victims of it.

For example, telling people that you are a great public speaker, that you always follow up on emails, that you always close deals—these are statements that could more or less others could confirm with data or experience. Your colleagues could check your sales numbers, or your email logs. But they are far more likely, after some repetition, to believe the reputation you’ve given yourself. Yes, of course she is going to close the deal—she always does.

On the other hand, talk negatively about yourself—that you always forget names, or take forever to finish projects—and people will begin to believe that, even if reality contradicts it. Evidence to the contrary may go unnoticed, or ignored.

This isn’t to say you should lie about your numbers or take credit for work you didn’t do. Because, as we’ll explore next, saying that you are more likely to do something will help you actually accomplish that goal. You are speaking your effectiveness into existence.

Change your expectations, change your performance

We’ve known for awhile that the placebo effect works regardless of whether you know the drug you’re taking is a placebo or not; our expectations of whether something will work, or work well, can change our reality. It’s no different in the workplace.

Science journalist Chris Berdik explained how expectations can alter reality to the Scientific American a few years ago:

“For instance, brain scans reveal that expectations about a wine’s quality (based on price or a critic’s review) actually change the level of activity in the brain’s reward centers when a person takes a sip. Highly trained weight lifters can out-do their personal bests when they believe they’ve taken a performance booster. People who wear taller, better looking avatars in virtual reality behave in ways that taller and better looking people tend to act.

 … in one study, researchers told some track athletes that what they thought of as pre-race jitters actually improved performance, while telling another group that this sort of arousal was usually detrimental. The athletes performed accordingly when the pressure was on.

 There are limits to this, of course: You can’t bench press a million pounds, no matter how many supplements you take.

You can, however, set reasonable and positive expectations for your performance at work—and doing so will make you more likely to meet those expectations. Whatever you want to call it (the power of positive thinking, the placebo effect), we can make ourselves perform better if we believe it.

When people think we’re great, we become great

Speaking positively about ourselves at work, at home, or in any other setting doesn’t just make us more likely to perform better. It also influences how people see us, which creates a virtuous cycle that further improves our performance in the long run.

There are two opposing phenomena known as the “Pygmalion effect” and the “Golem effect.” In the former, if a manager’s expectations of an employee are high, that employee’s performance and productivity go up. In the latter, if expectations are low, the employee’s performance is poor.

These effects are present throughout our lives: Studies have shown how teachers with big expectations for children—and as a result treat them differently, with more positivity and opportunities for success—encourage those children to perform better. You might know this as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

We can engender this effect at work by giving our managers, employers, and peers reason to believe we can and will be great. Speaking positively about ourselves will give people a more positive impression of us, raising their expectations and thus influencing us to achieve even more.

Speaking negatively about ourselves, in contrast, will instead set into motion expectations that lead to us performing worse. It all starts with how we see ourselves, present ourselves, and sell ourselves to others.

You Are Not Bad At Your Job

Well, you probably aren’t—I can’t say for sure. But coming into work every day with that attitude will make that expectation a reality. The idea that you aren’t good at certain aspects of your work—public speaking, for example—is part of what’s preventing you from excelling at it.

While you can’t make yourself into a leader at your company just by saying it, you can set the wheels in motion to make that dream a reality. Change the conversation around your performance, and your performance itself will change.

This guest post was authored by Meredith Wood

Meredith Wood is the Editor-in-Chief at Fundera, an online marketplace for small business loans that matches business owners with the best funding providers for their business. Specializing in financial advice for small business owners, Meredith is a current and past contributor to Yahoo!, Amex OPEN Forum, Fox Business, SCORE, AllBusiness and mor

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.