“The feeling of being a fraud that is emphasized in the impostor phenomenon is not uncommon. It has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of impostor phenomenon at least once in their life.” Wikipedia
Do you ever feel like an imposter? It’s a surprisingly common phenomenon amongst leaders like you. If you find you’re constantly worried that someone will realise you’re not up to the job and ‘find you out’, you’re not alone. You just have a sneaky feeling that while you might look OK on the surface, closer examination will ‘out’ you as someone who doesn’t deserve to be in the position you’re in.
It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. And it’s not just uncomfortable for you. It has a knock-on effect on the people around you, feeding other people’s insecurities and influencing the team dynamics. So what’s it all about, and how can you free yourself from the feeling that – in some fundamental way – you’re just not good enough?
What is the imposter syndrome?
Thinking like an imposter involves the conversation inside your head. It’s a tendency to discount or diminish the obvious evidence of your abilities, a nagging sense that while everyone else is the real deal, you’re different. In other words, it’s a psychological pattern where a person doubts their accomplishments and suffers persistent internal fears around being exposed as a fraud.
Impostor experiences are often accompanied by anxiety, stress, or even depression, and the thoughts that run through your head are probably along the lines of, “I must never fail“, “Underneath all this I’m a fake“, and “I have no idea how I got this job, I just got lucky“.
Who tends to suffer from the imposter syndrome?
Men and women both suffer from the imposter syndrome, and it’s often a senior thing. A new working environment can kick it off, as can an important new role, the unrealistic expectations of others, being a perfectionist, and excessive self-monitoring of your own self-worth.
It’s sometimes a workplace thing. If your workplace has a highly competitive, dog-eat-dog culture, it has an effect. If the company is notorious for poor internal communication and has confusing expectations of its employees, or it lacks diversity so there’s a sense of being isolated, of being ‘other’, it can help to bring these feelings into play.
Harnessing non-imposter thinking
Your first step, as with almost every problem you face, is to acknowledge you’re suffering. Once you fully tune into your imposter thoughts you might be surprised at how powerful they are, how efficiently they drown out positive thought. Listen carefully to yourself.
In Valerie Young’s TED Talk on the subject she suggests people suffering from imposter syndrome need to learn to think like non-imposters. Why are non-imposters such a good model to follow? The key is fairly simple – non imposters know they can’t be brilliant at everything 100% of the time, but they don’t worry about it. They’re perfectly fine being less than perfect.
If you’d like to see Valerie Young’s excellent TED talk about the syndrome, here it is:
Thinking your way out of imposter syndrome | Valerie Young.
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Tips for dealing with the imposter syndrome
First, here’s something not to do. Don’t try to hide from the feelings. The thing is, the more effort you put into not thinking about something, the more you end up thinking about it, and the worse it feels. Let the feelings flood in, then do something about them.
We’ve already mentioned how common the syndrome is. For a start it’s good to realise it is normal, since that takes a lot of the sting out of the feelings you’re having. Plenty of new leaders feel wobbly, and the feeling doesn’t always disappear the moment your feet are properly under the table. There’s often a gap between what you ultimately need to be and what you are now, and that’s fine. If the leaderships shoes you’re trying to fill feel far too big for far too long, it’s not you being crazy.
It’s helpful if you can pin down exactly what’s making you feel like an imposter. Is it anxiety at the leadership stretch you’ve given yourself? Is it actually a natural part of the process of finding your way? Are you honestly in over your head, or does it just feel that way? Sometimes it might be true, but it’s rare – it’s more likely you’re in the job for a very good reason, because you’re ideal for the role.
If you feel you are genuinely in over your head, do you maybe need to listen more closely to what you’re saying to yourself? Are you questioning the actual role itself, whether the fit is working? You need to robustly consider your options if you decide to leave and want to leave well. But if you decide to stay, you’ve got some work to do to calm your internal imposter down.
It’s your job to hear your imposter thoughts as they occur, and reframe them. As every great leader knows, it’s possible to change the way you think. You know the score – you don’t actually have to feel confident to act confident. And acting something you’re not actually feeling is an excellent way to turn your thoughts around. Act more positively and you feel happier. Act more decisively and you end up feeling a lot stronger.
When you notice each and every imposter thought, let it pass you by, and replace it with something more productive, you end up in a much better situation, a landscape where you can have imposter moments but they don’t drive you to an entire lifetime of feeling like an imposter. Consciously reframing your thinking really does change your feelings.
It also helps to tell yourself that this is one heck of a complex world, and nobody has all the answers. You know leadership can be a lonely place. Internal politics and competition between leaders can make it even more tough. The trick is to accept the challenge and surround yourself with people who complement your strengths and weakness. And it helps to be realistic about the extra expertise, support and advice you might need, too. Know that it’s OK to ask for help, even when you’re the boss!
It’s important to listen to people you respect and trust, remain open, and admit your mistakes. Learning is a big part of dealing with the imposter syndrome, a handy tool for freeing yourself from its hook. If you lack confidence and fear being exposed, think about what would make you feel more capable. If the feeling keeps growing, find some coaching and put support structures in place to help you lead more confidently.
Being clear about what you mean by leadership can help as well. When your thoughts are scattered, you feel scattered too. Try to pin things down so they have a shape, size and texture. What exactly is the purpose of your role? How can you help the people you lead achieve greater success? It makes more sense to focus on actually acting rather than constantly ruminating on your role and who you are.
Ask yourself who inspires you. Which leader do you respect the most, whether dead or alive, real or fictional? What are the traits you most admire in them? Can you see any of them in yourself, sense the beginnings of a great trait you can nurture? Act as though you can do the role with ease, making the kind of decisions that you know the leader you respect most would make.
It’s no good beating your poor self up all the time. Be kind to yourself and you’ll find it easier to build your leadership capabilities slowly but surely. If you start to feel wobbly, take a little time to ground yourself. When you’re grounded, people around you will pick up on your calmness and respond to you in a more positive way.
Not trusting yourself has a negative side indeed. A chemical side. Some experts believe the fear of being found out might be tied in with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and the ‘not deserving’ ties in with low levels of serotonin, which relates to mood, plus low levels of dopamine, a chemical connected to reward and motivation. It could be down to testosterone too – low confidence in both genders corresponds with low testosterone levels. The resulting toxic cocktail of fear, uncertainty, distrust and shame can be a powerful force. It can easily project your lack of self-belief out into the workplace, and that sows mistrust in your colleagues.
How to take imposter syndrome into account to become an even better leader
Lots of highly successful people doubt their competence. But the most successful of all manage to harness that self-doubt and use it in a positive way to become better leaders, and to help other people beat their own imposter feelings.
There’s a lot to be said for a leader who doesn’t insist on perfect every time, for example, because they make it clear to people that total, constant perfectionism isn’t a must. The same goes for over-working, something that tends to go hand in hand with the imposter syndrome, but overwork merely means people are exhausted and unproductive. As a leader who works like a human rather than a machine, you’re showing people that their health and well-being matters to you.
Rather than only praising results, it’s great to praise effort. When you focus on achievement only, it’s easy for the imposter syndrome to creep in. Being positive about incremental progress keeps morale high. Positive feedback on people’s development helps keep the syndrome at bay, as does helping your people create a list of their strengths and helping them to improve them.
Last but not least, you need to provide space for honest conversations, a culture where people can air their fears safely. When there’s a positive culture of no interruptions, freedom of speech and a lack of judgement – in other words a culture of inclusion – people can speak up without being labelled incompetent.
Beating your own imposter messages
You can have these feelings and still be a great leader. It’s a matter of acknowledging you don’t know everything, and actually listening to the people who work under you. Know that very few of us are perfect leaders, and that you need practice to become the leader you want to be. Don’t think about yourself as an expert, instead see yourself as a person with authority – they’re very different. Remember you hired your employees for their expertise. It’s your job to make their life as easy as possible so they can do an excellent job. And finally… focus less on yourself, more on how you can support your team.
Is it time to examine your imposter feelings more closely?
You’ve lived with your imposter feelings for a while. You’ve done your best to banish them. But you still feel like an imposter. When you want to build your leadership confidence, and reduce any lingering Imposter Syndrome thinking to a few rare moments that you can effectively reframe, get in touch. We’ll be pleased to help you become the best leader you can be.