Ever get the feeling you’re a fraud and about to be found out? Well you’re not alone, says Portia Mount
Clare is a senior executive with a large, successful company, known for the results she produces and for her bright mind. But Clare feels like a pretender. Despite outstanding credentials, she is convinced she’s unworthy of her position. As a result, she finds it virtually impossible to make decisions. She keeps her team in perpetual ‘analysis paralysis’ as she looks for more and more data, test cases and proof of potential outcomes.
Does Clare’s predicament sound familiar? Her indecision and feelings of unworthiness are classic symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, a well-researched phenomenon involving otherwise successful and intelligent professionals who feel they simply don’t deserve their accomplishments. Instead they are certain they have faked their way to success and will soon be found out. The resulting stress, fear, anxiety and lack of confidence can derail an otherwise stellar career.
Just how prevalent is Impostor Syndrome? You may be surprised to hear that it is fairly common. Rachel Sams, writing in the Baltimore Business Journal, says experts believe as many as 70 per cent of people feel like impostors at some point in their lives. But for an estimated three out of ten, it is an ongoing and potentially crippling condition.
Symptoms of Impostor Syndrome
Those who exhibit Impostor Syndrome share many traits. They typically are ambitious, high-achieving individuals with an intense fear of failure. They lack self-confidence and spend a lot of time in a state of high anxiety. The overwhelming negative stress can impact health – leading to sleeplessness, a weakened immune system and other physical symptoms.
Syndrome sufferers frequently discount their accomplishments. Their sense of inadequacy can cause them to feel they must work tirelessly to keep their incompetence from being exposed. They take an obsessive, nearly frantic, approach to every detail, with their job taking precedence over all else, including their private life. They also are risk averse and reluctant to ask questions for fear of appearing unintelligent.
These self-imposed constraints can negatively impact job performance and job satisfaction – keeping even the most highly respected leaders from developing their talents to the fullest potential. They can miss out on career opportunities and limit the contributions they make to their team, their organisation and their community.
The ripple effect
The deep sense of unworthiness felt by Impostor Syndrome sufferers can take a toll on others as well, especially in the workplace. Negative behaviours create a ripple effect that can ultimately impact business outcomes. A few examples:
- Micromanaging can make team members feel you don’t trust them or that you believe they are incapable of doing the job on their own.
- Making decisions slowly can cause them to feel demotivated because they aren’t seeing forward movement or results from their hard work.
- Needing to be perfect can lead them to become insecure since nothing they do is good enough to meet your standards.
- Worrying excessively can cause them to lose confidence because they see that you lack confidence.
- Working compulsively can cause them to feel pressured to work the same unreasonable hours, leading to burnout and stress.
Tips for breaking free of Impostor Syndrome
Are you (or someone you know) affected by Impostor Syndrome? Is the fear of being found out holding you back and compromising your talents, limiting your impact and lowering your career trajectory? If so, don’t despair. There are four steps you can take that will help you conquer inaccurate beliefs and achieve true career fulfilment – once and for all.
Step 1: Focus on the facts
People who suffer from Impostor Syndrome see the world through a distorted lens and often take great pains to downplay and rationalise their success. They pass off their accomplishments as:
- “I got lucky.”
- “I was in the right place at the right time.”
- “It’s just because they like me.”
- “Anyone could have done it.”
- “I had a lot of help and the right connections.”
- “Someone must have made a mistake.”
- “I fooled them… again.”
On the surface, downplaying a personal success may seem like humility. But being modest about your abilities is very different from believing you lack certain strengths or have somehow faked your way into your current position.
So how do you begin to embrace reality and come to grips with the role you have played in your own success? One effective technique is to conduct a personal career success inventory that can help you bring the facts into focus.
Begin by listing your major job successes over the last couple of years – in chronological order if possible – along with the core skills you used to bring your achievements to fruition. Analyse your list for insights into how you accomplished your goals.
Did one achievement lead you to another? What specific skills, capabilities and attributes did you develop through each experience that added to your overall competence and helped you build on your successes?
Honestly assess how much of each success on your list was attributable to specific skills and strategies you used – and not to dumb luck or any other external circumstance. You’ll begin to build a stronger self-awareness of your strengths and what you’ve been able to accomplish, which is the first step to overcoming Impostor Syndrome.
Step 2: Challenge your limiting beliefs
Do you have long-held beliefs about what you need to do, be or have in order to succeed? For Impostor Syndrome sufferers, those beliefs can sometimes be quite debilitating.
A CEO we’ll call Steve is a great example. Born and raised in Brooklyn by parents of very little means, he was determined to make a better life for himself. He attended college, rose through the ranks at two public companies and then started his own firm. When a major financial services company acquired Steve’s business, he worked his way up to become CEO of the entire enterprise – viewed as a highly effective leader by his peers, employees and customers.
But Steve was unable to acknowledge his leadership strengths and believed he needed to change who he was in order to deserve the position he had clearly earned. Steve’s feelings of inadequacy stemmed, in part, from his belief that a well-heeled family and a pedigreed education were a prerequisite for any intelligent, effective leader. He also believed his Brooklyn accent and distinctive style of communicating simply weren’t CEO-like, despite feedback from colleagues and other stakeholders that they loved his refreshingly direct and honest style.
Do you see yourself in Steve’s experiences? If so, it may be time for you to break through your own limiting beliefs by challenging them with external facts. Whatever your criteria are, they simply may not be accurate.
Pick up a pencil and list your true beliefs about success – what you need to do, what you need to be and what you need to have. Also, list any limitations that you perceive are holding you back and make you unworthy of the position you hold.
Next, go on a fact hunt. Research and document examples where individuals who didn’t match up to the success attributes you listed were able to achieve well-respected and notable careers. Also look for examples of individuals who succeeded despite having the same limitations you believe yourself to have.
Armed with the facts, take some time to reflect and reassess. Perhaps those prerequisites to success that you identified really don’t matter at all. And the same may be true of those personal limitations you believe are standing in your way. The truth may be that your own beliefs are holding you back and represent your greatest barrier to success.
Step 3: Get clear on your strengths
People who suffer from Impostor Syndrome typically focus only on their weaknesses and what they don’t do well. After all, they’re convinced of their incompetence, so what better way to reinforce that belief than to focus on ‘obvious’ shortcomings?
Research shows, though, that many of the weaknesses leaders exhibit actually occur because they are unaware of what they do well. For example, leaders who believe they lack the management skills they need may try to do it all – either failing to delegate or micromanaging projects in order to compensate. Either approach can create a whole host of problems that impact the broader organisation and lead to disgruntled and disaffected employees.
If you suffer from Impostor Syndrome, get crystal clear on your own strengths. Start by conducting a simple inventory. Set an alarm for five minutes, and then write down ten things you do well. Are you great at creating strategy, thinking analytically or leading teams? If you’re having trouble getting started, ask a trusted friend or colleague who knows you well to help you brainstorm.
Reflect on the list you’ve developed and think through the implications. What do you notice about the things you’ve listed? Are there any common factors or skill sets? How do the strengths you’ve captured play out in your day-to-day job? What would you have to do to develop these particular areas of competency even further? Are you able to use your strengths in new ways to the benefit of your team and your broader organisation?
As a second step in the exercise, think about your ‘inner critic’ and how you perpetuate self-defeating thoughts about your capabilities. Capture several ideas for how you might counteract those negative thoughts when they bubble up and how you might focus instead on what you do well.
Step 4: Talk about it
It’s often difficult for Impostor Syndrome sufferers to share their feelings of inadequacy with others. After all, they are afraid of being found out. But as with so many burdens, sharing your innermost feelings and thoughts with someone you trust can greatly reduce the stress and strain you’ve been shouldering alone. You may even discover that a trusted friend or colleague has struggled with the same insecurities, which can help you keep things in perspective.
Who should you select to talk to about the pressures you are experiencing? Obviously, the answer will differ depending on your unique situation. But here are some avenues you might want to pursue:
- A peer in another functional organisation.
- A peer from another company.
- A trusted mentor.
- An executive coach.
- A former boss or colleague.
- Online chats and community-building forums established by experts, bloggers and authors who have written about Impostor Syndrome.
By taking the initiative to share your feelings with others, you’ll be taking an important step in building a support system to counter your false beliefs and enhance your performance as a leader.
If you feel like an impostor, take heart. You are not alone, and there is a path forward that can set you free. Since Imposter Syndrome originates in flawed beliefs about success, failure and self-worth, focus on ways to develop the kind of self-awareness that can help you overcome this debilitating way of thinking. It takes emotional honesty, introspection and feedback from others. But the time and energy you invest can benefit your health, your outlook and your performance – both on the job and in your private life.