Act as If

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Which comes first: succeeding in business or the belief that you’re succeeding in business? I say the belief comes first, and “acting as if” you’re succeeding is a great strategy for achieving success.

A Bad Act

I once consulted for a company where the founding CEO had everyone believing we were thriving. He wasn’t frivolous with money, but he consistently let employees know that the company had enough money to make the right investments and run at the top of its game. Plus, without fail he was generous in charitable contributions in response to disasters anywhere in the world, and he would frequently fly the company’s disbursed management team to fun destinations just to build camaraderie. He was unswerving in these practices, even through periods when the company’s profits dipped temporarily. During his tenure, the company was consistently the most profitable in the industry by a significant margin. When he retired a new CEO assumed the reins.

The new CEO believed in being very thrifty and immediately changed many of the practices that had made us feel like we were thriving.  Without delay, he sent us a barrage of messages telling us we couldn’t sustain our level of spending. A huge earthquake occurred in the world shortly after he assumed office, and he proclaimed that the company was not financially able to make a donation to help the cause. And he instantly curtailed all celebratory or camaraderie-building events that required significant expense. He made these changes at the beginning of his tenure while the company was very profitable, but during his tenure, the company’s profits fell significantly, by well over fifty percent. He would say that profits fell because of market conditions, but the fact is that other companies in our industry were increasing their profitability while we declined.

The Science behind “Act as If”

At the onset of the new CEO’s tenure, I saw a telling shift occur in the beliefs of the people. We began to believe that success wasn’t possible, and we focused on what we couldn’t do rather than what we could do. In short, whereas we once perceived ourselves as thriving, we began to perceive ourselves as failing. It’s not surprising that this led to profit declines.

Neuroscience clearly tells us that people must feel positive in order to perform their best and innovate. You can feel the truth of this in your body. You feel more resourceful and creative when you feel positive. There’s even evidence that beliefs impact the very form of matter. I hold that the change in beliefs provoked the decline in profits.

As a leader, “acting as if” your organization is thriving is one of the most powerful things you can do to achieve success. It solidifies a belief system that triggers the most positive emotions from every employee, heightening their creativity and performance. In contrast, an inspirational speech can prompt positive thinking for a short period of time, but a thriving belief system makes positivity and creativity sustainable. I’ll add that creativity is paramount to success, as a 2010 IBM survey of over 1500 global CEO’s concluded that creativity of the workforce is the number one requirement for handling the unprecedented complexity that businesses face.

Proving “Act as If”

Do we see universal evidence showing that when organizations act as if they are prosperous, this leads to greater business profits? Business research does show that when organizations are generous in charitable giving and employee bonuses, they have significantly higher financial performance. However, it’s tricky to determine whether the generosity caused the profitability or the profitability caused the generosity. Therefore, the study of start-up companies is particularly useful because they all start from a position of zero profitability.

A study of 136 start-up companies in the Silicon Valley found that the companies that were generous, with more liberal spending on items such as employee bonuses, were far more likely to survive five years. Now you may say that their generous employee bonuses sparked greater motivation and that led to their success, but there’s solid research showing that higher compensation does not create higher motivation for people in jobs that require use of cognitive skills, such as those required to get a start-up off the ground.

The cause-effect relationship between “acting as if” and actual achievement is difficult to prove conclusively using our “scientific” method, but indications are that the believing precedes the achievement and “acting as if” your organization is successful is a sound leadership practice.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Jim Lemonides  February 27, 2012

    It’s hard to determine whether it’s causation or correlation, but I opt for the former. Cognitive psychology says thought drives emotion, and Adlerians (who first coined the phrase “acting as if”) believe emotion drives behavior. This relates well to Appreciative Inquiry and Peter Drucker’s conviction that we should “feed our strengths and starve our weaknesses.” As we believe, so we achieve!

  2. Lisa Perkins  March 1, 2012

    Great article Jackie. I’m 100% with you in believing that belief precedes experience.
    Great story to exhibit how that works.

  3. Glen Fahs  March 1, 2012

    First we need to have the belief that we can succeed and make a difference. If I don’t believe in myself, I may not bring the energy, initiative and creativity that are keys to success. I remember working for an employer who criticized me, second guessed me and doubted me repeatedly and my training skills atrophied badly until I got a new employer. We do much better when we are focused on strengths and show confidence. We can do that for ourselves but much energy is wasted on defensiveness when supervisors are negative and internal conflicts are win-lose,

  4. Amy Randolph  March 1, 2012

    On the lines of “thoughts become things” it seems important to first believe that success is happening. And, in accordance with Stephen Covey’s 2nd Habit, Begin with the End in Mind, it is important to have a vision of what success looks like. I mirror Ronald, in that in deciding what “that” looks like, it must be in alignment with who you really are and your values and principles. There was a great pic going around FB the other day. It said, “Follow your heart, but take your brain with you.” Blessings.

  5. Uma Girish  March 1, 2012

    Believing is seeing! I think that’s the route to mainfestation.

  6. Nicholas George  March 1, 2012

    Well put Jackie. The same success formula applies to individuals too.

  7. Jurgen,Rohr  March 14, 2012

    Hi Jackie

    Thank you for sharing this inspirational article. I would say that “acting as if” is often an unconsious process which we aren’t aware of. The first step is to make obvious how an organisation acts and which beliefs control the behaviour of the individuals. With this awareness a process gets started that will slightly change the behaviour of the individuals. And this will lead to a change of beliefs.

    To put it together I would state that there’s a cyclic relationship between belief and behaviour. Both influences each other. Awareness is the glue in between.

    Kind regards


  8. Linda Center  March 14, 2012

    Thanks Jackie – I was focusing on the phrasing of the question and you absolutely must approach your business with the determination and attitude that you will be successful. I was referring to the statement “belief that you are succeeding” as secondary to actually succeeding, and was focusing on the leadership. It was about the semantics.
    The article is great and in the example, the CEO was instilling confidence throughout the organization. Behind the scenes, I think he was very busy making sure everything was in good order for success. The positive leadership model is powerful, but being realistic about spending money you don’t have is also powerful – while maintaining a good attitude.

  9. Christina Schagen  March 14, 2012

    Thank you Jackie for this article. Sometimes I forget the Act as if. I have dreams and believes, but sometimes I forget the Act as if, I forget to action my dreams and believes, and than I wonder why nothing happens!


  10. Larry Moore  March 14, 2012

    Jackie, in my opinion belief always comes first. After belief, then whether one has the ability or not will eventually manifest itself.

  11. Ashwin Baindur  March 14, 2012

    Agree, being positive increases your chances of success.
    I think even before a belief that you’re succeeding or thriving in business, you need to start with a positive/optimistic view of your business and it’s prospects, coupled with good management and leadership practices. For eg., you cannot mismanage your business, esp the financials, and expect it to do well just on the basis of any positive views and beliefs. If the business succeeds and thrives, then capitalize further to ensure this success is experienced by the employees. The positive view is indeed needed to build and keep the morale and motivation of the employees. After all, most people want to work for successful or to-be-successful companies, not failing companies. The positive view also has to filter out the right way to (potential) customers – they too want to buy from a company that will be around.


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