Do you sometimes feel as if you don't deserve the job you hold – as if, somehow, everybody around you doesn't realize you sneaked through their defences and gained a position for which you are mildly or wildly inadequate? Or, if you feel competent, are you prone to micromanaging making decisions slowly, perfectionism, worrying excessively, and workaholism?
In either case, you might be suffering from the Imposter Syndrome.
First popularized in the late 1970s, the phenomenon refers to successful leaders who have received promotions and accolades but feel, deep down, that they are a fraud and will soon be found out. In some cases, they explicitly recognize these fears of inadequacy, while in others the impression is buried but expressed through their workplace behaviour.
Portia Mount, a senior vice-president of the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., and Susan Tardanico, executive-in-residence at the organization, realized recently that many of the people they were coaching exhibited Imposter Syndrome behaviours. While statistics on the extent of the phenomenon vary widely, they estimated that out of 100 recent clients, about 50 to 60 per cent were in the grips of this malaise – with it seeming to strike women more often than men.
These were highly successful people, ranging in ages from their thirties to sixties, but they felt they had to prove every day that they belonged in the role they held. The actual data on their performance – comments in 360-degree appraisals – didn't support their sense of inadequacy but in their heart or in their actions, they were imposters. Their own stress is transferred to others, as they act in overly aggressive ways to achieve the high standards that might keep them from being found out.
Interestingly, when the Imposter Phenomenon is explained to them, Ms. Mount says "it's liberating. One, these are very successful individuals and very image conscious, so they want very badly to keep up the appearance of competence. To know others are like them is liberating. It's also helpful to know it doesn't have to be that way."
On that latter point, the duo has published a book, Beating the Imposter Syndrome, which sets out a four-step process for liberation:
1. Focus on the facts
Individuals who suffer from Impostor Syndrome often pass off their successes to "dumb luck." But the authors counter that smart people put themselves in a position to get lucky. And once the "lucky break" takes place, the diligent, resourceful, strategic person capitalizes on it.
Individuals need to objectively assess what they have accomplished and the challenges they have overcome, so they realize they aren't lucky or riding the coattails of their team or mentor.
The authors ask you to create a Personal Success Inventory, listing the challenges you've had over your career, what was accomplished, and the success drivers – the skills, capabilities, and personal accomplishments that helped you to succeed.
Then study the chronology of your success – it's probably more impressive than you have acknowledged – and in cases where you attribute the accomplishment to your team, clarify for yourself the role you actually played in leading the group. From the list, pick your three proudest achievements and describe the three specific things you did to achieve the goal.
2. Challenge limiting beliefs
Now you need to think about why you feel inadequate and check it against reality. Take Steve, a CEO who believed only people with advanced degrees from Ivy League universities, perfect diction and a proper accent, unlike his Brooklynese dialect, could succeed at that level. When he honestly looked around him, he realized such an elite pedigree wasn't the norm and he was actually the model of a new type of leadership emerging in companies.
Write out what you believe you need to be, do, or have to be successful and why that disqualifies you from being successful. Then go on a fact hunt to see what the truth is. "Armed with the facts, consider that your own limiting beliefs may be your greatest barrier to success. What if these limitations aren't limitations at all, or not as significant as you've assumed they are?" the pair write.
3. Understand your strengths
Set a timer for five minutes and write out 10 things you do well on a Strengths Inventory Worksheet. Sometimes, people are so self-critical and their standards so high they can only come up with five. In that case, Ms. Mount reads them the positive remarks in 360-degree appraisals that praise the person's strengths, forcing them to reassess.
"They are often stunned by what people have said about them. It's very affirming as they are so self-critical," she said in an interview. Sure, you also have some weaknesses. But don't let areas you must improve on prevent you from realizing your strengths.
4. Talk about it
Discuss these findings with a trusted friend, mentor, coach or peer in another organization (peers in your own organization may have sentiments of rivalry). Create a supportive environment to start operating with confidence instead of feelings of inadequacy.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org