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Managerial Moments with Mike | The Illusion of Success: The Fallacy of a Unified Façade

Updated: May 25

My ex-wife used to do this quirky thing whenever she was depressed. She would spend hours putting on make-up, styling her hair, and dressing in a way that accentuated all of her best qualities. She never said she did it because she was depressed, but after living with her for long enough, I realized when she did this, she was dealing with things.


As odd as I originally thought it was, after all, why would she spend so much time and energy doing something that would only be seen by myself, and maybe a few people around the church offices? The reason, though, was simple. She did it because it made her feel better. In a way, she was covering up the ugly feelings, by projecting an image of beauty.


It was no weirder than when I’m feeling down and decide to wear an especially comfortable pair of underwear (which no one will see) or my favorite tie (it’s a Felix the Cat tie that I’ve owned since High School). Is it part of our nature to try and cover up the bad by doing something that makes us feel good, and can this same human nature be extended to how we manage our teams?


For my last article, Jer reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to do an article about something I had no knowledge of. Of course, I said yes.

In a sermon I did in my early days as a pastor, I talked about the “evils of wearing a mask.” The argument is that a figurative mask hides the true nature of your ‘self’. I reflected on this as I explored this new concept that the Jer introduced me to, and I realized that it is the human condition to hide the pain.

Before I trek down the winding path of Tsarist Russia, and Catherine’s visit to Crimea let's delve into the façades we use to protect ourselves.


This isn’t a question of being vulnerable or shit like that. What we are talking about is self-preservation. Facades that support an illusion we need to protect ourselves. That illusion isn’t meant to hide, necessarily, but it’s a fucked-up part of the roles we all play.


It’s the news anchor who projects an illusion of confidence, even though they have extreme social anxiety. It’s the executive that projects an illusion of decisiveness, even though they suffer from decision paralysis and so rely on their digital assistant to make decisions. It’s the operations manager who always seems to be on top of things and organized, even though they struggle with ADHD. Indeed, the façade is as much of a part of who we are, as the color of our eyes. Our personal facades exist because they are a necessary expectation from others.


This isn’t a bad thing.


In organizations, the façade is who we are as well. No one wants to be a part of a failing team, so we project an illusion of success. It’s just human nature, and therefore, it’s a social dynamic, it’s natural regardless of the setting.


When the Cap'n said, I would like you to discuss something that has affected him in several of his jobs and something that leads to some serious mental anguish among team members, I thought he had to be referring to harassment, or managerial abuse. What he introduced me to, however, has turned my entire worldview upside fucking down.


I introduce you to: The Potemkin Village.


Legend has it, when the Empress of Russia, Christina II visited Crimea, an architect created a village in order to lead the Tsarina to believe that Crimea was much more well off than they actually were. It was a way of projecting success, by using the façade of a fake village.


Another reference to the concept was used during WWII when Allied forces used inflatable tanks, and cutouts of soldiers in order to make Axis forces believe that they had built up a very large invasion force, in order to distract from the actual mission, the storming of Normandy Beach.


In a more modern example, Kijong-Dong, the North Korean city in the DMZ is called a Potemkin Village, because it portrays an image of wealth and success while covering up the horrible living conditions in other parts of North Korea.


Going back to Russia, the Potemkin Village was used during the Cold War, to cover up that Russians were starving under Soviet Rule.


Unlike the facades that we use to cover up any personal insecurities, the Potemkin Village, and the use of facades in organizations is meant to distract and cover up problems, or is utilized as a strategic weapon. When we’re dealing with real people, however, the strategic weaponization of a unified façade that projects success hurts those who wield it as much as it distracts those on the outside.


Toward the end of my marriage, my wife was always dressing nicely, with beautifully done make-up, and hair. I knew that she was depressed, and I knew it was my fault, but we didn’t talk about it. We had to continue to portray a happy loving relationship. This just hurt us more and drove us farther apart. Our personal Potemkin Village led those to believe that we were a happy, Ward and June Cleaver couple, but really it was hiding a lot of pain and division.


Likewise, on teams within an organization, your Potemkin Village might be covering up poor processes, lack of team cohesion, incompetence, or a lack of resources, i.e., it’s covering up the pain points on your team.


The argument many leaders have is that a team that fakes a unified front, will eventually be unified (paraphrased, but trust me, it’s just as fucked up in the actual argument).


The Cap'n shared with me a story about a previous job, where the organization went from relationship-selling philosophy to fuck the customer… just lie and sell shit. It was hurting the morale of the sales team in that district, and it was driving a wedge between them and their customers. Their district lead demanded that everyone fall in line, and not speak ill of the district, the leadership, or the company. “We are competitors with the other sales teams, after all;” the “us versus the world” strategy.


It worked.


From the outside, it appeared that they were the most successful district in the zone, but what wasn’t seen was the fraud happening in order to meet sales goals. The lies they had to tell people; the promises they knew they couldn’t keep.


The façade was crushing the team’s spirits. Sales eventually plummeted, while refunded products soared. The façade remained. The Potemkin Village continued to stand.

They knew there was a problem, but they didn’t talk about it. They kept the façade of a happy team.



What this provides is fertile ground for an employee to snap, to lash out, to speak out, and to destroy your beautiful Potemkin Village. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. No, it should be expected. What is surprising is the response. The desperate clinging to the façade. The insistence that the one who spoke out falls back in line. The immediate labeling of the vocal one as a pariah, an agent of discord.


These people who finally snap and speak out, aren’t doing so because they are assholes. They are doing it because they have tried other, more conventional methods of communicating frustrations, but were met with pushback at every turn.


They return hostility with hostility. Why is this? Because the team holds on to the façade because they view it as a necessary expectation from those outside of the team. See the problem? The logic that would dictate the application to an individual, is being used to apply to multiple individuals. That is, you need to portray a façade because we are all portraying the same façade.


Instead of meeting criticism with hostility, instead, take it as a sign of problems among the team. Don’t instantly label them as a troublemaker, or someone who is hurting morale. I can almost guarantee with 100% confidence that if one person is speaking up about issues on the team, others feel the same way, there is just one who is bold enough to speak for others.


A businessman saying "ok so, you're an asshole, got it."
Managers every time you criticize something

Again, this isn’t about laying yourself out there and being vulnerable to everyone. Others don’t need to know that your team is a disaster, but you also don’t have to force everyone to pretend that everything is great. Treat every criticism from team members as an opportunity to grow. If the problems within the team start to spill into interactions outside of the team, while frustrating for a leader, is fine too. It’s all an opportunity to get better.


When my wife finally decided to file for a divorce, it came from a moment of frustration, in which she snapped at me. An outside observer spoke with her and helped her understand that it wasn’t healthy to stay in a marriage when you are miserable. In the same way, an outside observer who hears a frustrated outburst from your team member, an outburst that dismantles your Potemkin Village, can be the source of healing to the problems within your team.


The façade trickles upwards. This means you can’t seek the counsel of the one who is there to help lead you, as a team leader. It perpetuates the need for the façade, and it spreads. The lie is infectious.


Just like Grigory Potemkin disassembling his fake village and having it shipped further up the road in order to impress the Empress, the need to perpetuate the lie in order to impress the higher-ups becomes the reason for the façade to continue.


The lie exists, to perpetuate the lie.


I still hold that the individual’s façade is a valuable tool to cover for personal insecurities. However, the attempt to mask the struggles by putting on a front, projecting success, and hiding the faults that lie within a team or an organization begins to erode the foundation of the team. You begin to prize the fake village over the real towns. You put your team in a position where they must continue the lie, in order to keep up the appearance of the lie. Which calls into question, what’s the reason for it to exist at all.

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