How to deal with imposter syndrome

Careers  Leadership
18 March, 2019

Embrace your self-doubt to become a better leader and a happier person

Do you sometimes feel like you are not “cut out” for the job? Perhaps when you miss your annual target? Or perhaps it’s a complicated new cross-functional project where you need to lead a group of senior colleagues? Or it’s that scale up where you have new team members with skill sets that are new to you? When you don’t seem to have the answers come to you as easily as they used to? And all the while, you seem to be the only one who sees this inadequacy. Others around you think you are doing just fine.

If yes, you’re not alone. Research shows that imposter syndrome – feeling inadequate and as if you don’t deserve your success – is widespread, with one study suggesting that up to 70 percent of the population has struggled with imposter feelings.

Ironically, high achievers are more vulnerable to self-doubt. Some experts say this is related to perfectionism: when you hold yourself to an impossible standard, you can never be good enough. The inability to internalise your accomplishments leaves you feeling like a fake, no matter how much co-workers value and praise your contributions.

This week, my message focuses on the pros and cons of imposter syndrome. How can you manage these feelings of fraudulence to your career – instead of holding it back? And how can you support team members who are struggling with self-doubt?

The term “imposter syndrome” was introduced in the 1970s by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, who found that accomplished women at the workplace were often plagued by feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence. These high-achieving women believed they weren’t as competent as everyone else thought and worried about being “found out” – despite their exceptional academic and professional track record.

Subsequent research has shown that imposter syndrome exists across genders; however, it’s more prevalent among women. The insecurity is worsened by a sense of “not belonging” in male-dominated domains, as well as society’s expectations of success. In her article, If The Imposter Syndrome Is Undermining Your Leadership Role, Tackle It Head On, Julie Moreland highlights a few other reasons:

The Imposter Syndrome, which continues to be a problem for women leaders (and many men as well) to this day, can spring from growing up with low expectations (not being the child the parents perceive to be capable of success) as well as differences in gender (women tend to internalize their insecurities more than men).

In small doses, imposter syndrome can actually be useful for leaders. It makes you self-aware, humble, and open to learning. It can even act as a powerful motivator, spurring you on to greater achievements. However, chronic self-doubt can take a serious toll on your career and mental health. Insecurity becomes your permanent state of mind. Crippled by the feeling that you don’t deserve a seat at the table, you second-guess yourself and play it safe. You jump from one goal to the next, without deriving any real joy from your successes.

In small doses, imposter syndrome can actually be useful for leaders. It makes you self-aware, humble, and open to learning. However, chronic self-doubt can take a serious toll on your career and mental health.

People who suffer from imposter feelings are also poor organisational citizens. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, psychologist Jasmine Vergauwe explains:

Organizational citizenship behavior refers to behaviors that go beyond your job requirements, such as helping colleagues with their work…. Due to the fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description.

Here are five suggestions to manage imposter syndrome in a healthy, non-destructive way:

1. Accept imposter-hood

In Everybody Experiences Imposter Syndrome – Strong Leaders Use it to Their Advantage, the CEO of FreshBooks, Mike McDerment, advises leaders to acknowledge that they are – occasionally – imposters:

To keep growing and developing, embrace the fact that, yes, you sometimes are an imposter and you’ll definitely end up making some mistakes. I’ve never been a CEO before, and I’ve never hidden the fact that I’ve made some mistakes along the way.

Imposter feelings are a side-effect of growth. Accepting this makes you more humble and willing to receive input from others. As McDerment suggests, when in doubt, ask: “I don’t know, what do you think?” This is a great way to build expertise, without losing credibility by trying to “fake it till you make it”.

2. Create collaborative solutions

Leaders are often faced with brand-new challenges, especially in today’s dynamic business landscape. You may not have an instant solution to every problem, which can leave you feeling like a phony. But the truth is that it isn’t your job to present readymade answers – it’s to lead your team towards finding a solution, together.

Begin by defining the problem, which will reveal the root cause that needs to be addressed. Then, work collaboratively to design the solution. Problem-solving as a group also creates buy-in and allows each person to play to their strengths. 

3. Learn to fail

People who suffer from imposter syndrome are irrationally afraid of making a mistake, because they feel this might “expose” their supposed lack of ability. One way to get over this is to open yourself up to failure – and train yourself to deal with it.

Go ahead, take a few small risks and see what happens. If you don’t succeed, frame it as a learning opportunity: identify the lessons and what you would do differently next time. After making a couple of mistakes, you’ll realise they’re not the end of the world! Getting comfortable with failure gives you the freedom to think big and innovate. Your willingness to fail and grow is far more valuable than taking zero risks and never failing at all.

4. Find your champions

Smart leaders value people who offer them a “reality check” on their weaknesses, without sugar-coating things. Conversely, each of us also needs champions – people who clearly see our strengths and potential, even when we don’t. So, find your champions to celebrate wins and lift you up on those days when you doubt yourself the most. They could include co-workers, mentors, friends, and family members.

5. Talk about it

Most people (especially leaders) tend to treat imposter anxiety like a shameful secret, because they’re afraid of being “found out”. If you’re struggling with these feelings frequently, it’s best to talk to someone who probably knows what you’re going through. Remember, most professionals have felt like this at some point during their careers, so try reaching out to a trusted colleague or a supportive manager. Opening a dialogue will help you get a fresh perspective and break the hold these negative thoughts have over you.

How to support team members with imposter syndrome

You may notice persistent self-doubt among some of your team members. You might also be mentoring someone with imposter anxiety – especially since it’s common among those on the fast track to growth. As a leader, what can you do to ensure that their feelings of inadequacy don’t sabotage their career or mental health? Here are some recommendations:

1. Acknowledge their fears

In the Harvard Business Review article, Mentoring Someone with Imposter Syndrome, W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith suggest normalising imposter feelings as the first step:

If a mentee confesses imposter anxiety, shrug your shoulders, smile warmly, and say, “You and 70% of the people around you. Welcome to the club!” Feeling like a fraud at times is decidedly normal. After all, members of the self- admitted imposter club include Nobel prize winners, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, actors Tom Hanks and Tina Fey, Tennis icon Serena Williams, and yes, the authors of this article.

2. Talk them down with facts

Challenge your team member’s critical self-talk with positive evidence. Bring up their most recent accomplishments, using data if possible. (For example: “You exceeded a target of XYZ last month. Do you really think you could have done that if you weren’t great at your job?”) Highlight their progress, and affirm their competencies. Remind them that they were hired by a very intelligent group of people, who know for a fact that they’re up to the task.

3. Ensure their share of credit

As explained in the article mentioned above, you must ensure that your team members take rightful pride in their own accomplishments:

Be vigilant to the tendency for imposters to credit luck, extreme preparation, or their own mentors for their professional successes. Women are especially likely to attribute success to luck or their teammates, or credit mentors for achievements while downplaying their own talent and achievement. When a mentee with imposter syndrome gives you the credit, express thanks and then highlight in no uncertain terms how she deserves the lion’s share of credit – and explain why.

Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome at work? Do you have any tips to share? Do write in. As always, I look forward to your thoughts.



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