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Imposter syndrome

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The impostor phenomenon was named by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They described imposter syndrome as the perceived disconnect between how we perceive our performance versus our actual performance. Even if we have ample evidence that we are doing well, we will cancel it out by dismissing it as luck or our ability to fool everyone, and fear being unmasked as a fraud imminently – how can this impact us in the workplace?

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Imposter syndrome can present from a variety of sources, research has shown us that high-expectations on us as children, paternal over-protection or even non-supportive friends can affect our confidence and feed our inner imposter. Most commonly, imposter syndrome tends to present itself as we progress up the career ladder. To quote Tolkien via Gandalf “with great power comes great responsibility”. As we take on job roles with more responsibility, where the buck stops with us. The cost of failure becomes much higher and there isn’t someone more senior than us to help shoulder the blame. Especially if you’re the CEO!

Who has imposter syndrome?


When I came to write this blog, it made me think about the assumptions we can make about Imposter Syndrome. One that women are more affected by it than men, another that it only affects a few people. I headed off to twitter to pose the question! Of the responses I received, 63% were men telling me they felt like imposters on a regular basis and 100% of people who replied said that they had felt like they were blagging their way through life a little bit or most of the time. So even based on this small survey, it would seem imposter syndrome is more common than we would think.

In fact the latest studies are telling us that over 70% of people have experienced it at some point in their lives, and mainly while studying or at work. In early research it was seen as predominantly a syndrome that affected high achieving women. Clance & Imes (1978) found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalise and accept their achievements. Instead, they attributed their successes to serendipity, luck, contacts, timing, perseverance, charm, or even the ability to appear more capable than they felt themselves to be. Despite being presented with plenty of objective data to the contrary.

More recently, research has pointed to it occurring with similar frequency among high achieving men (Langford and Clance, 1993). The difference seems to be in how men and women deal with imposter syndrome, women showing a tendency to work harder and be more competitive, whereas men will try to avoid situations where they may perceive themselves as not being competent or successful. Interestingly true imposters (deliberate fraudsters/con-artists) are more commonly men than women.

How does imposter syndrome play out at work?

What starts as a drive for high achievement or perfectionism in a person can become a cognitive distortion. The fear of failure we have already talked about but also developing a negative focus ‘what’s the point, they all know more than me anyway’ or even having a distorted view of reality ‘my boss doesn’t think I’m doing a good job, she only said that project was a success to make me feel better’. As soon as we succumb to thinking in this way, the way we behave changes. We might not delegate for fear of others thinking our work is rubbish or that they might do a better job than us.

We might become defensive, seeing feedback or debate as a personal attack. We might become quite intimidating and tough on the performance of those around us, better to go in on the attack so the spotlight isn’t focused on us. One of the most memorable examples I have seen in my coaching practice of imposter syndrome was a CEO of a professional services firm. She was a successful, charismatic and lovely individual who had lead the firm to success after success. However, her board viewed her as emotional, defensive and sometimes even aggressive.

It turned out, it was her imposter syndrome at work. She felt she was going to be rumbled at any moment as a fraud, this caused her to view opposition as a personal attack and disagreement with her ideas as an opportunity to ‘prove she was right’ aka go off on a crusade and bulldoze down the opposition. From the outside looking in, this was the first time I had seen imposter syndrome so effectively at work.

Overcoming imposter syndrome

  1. Recognise that you have it! If you are aware it’s there, that’s the first step to doing something about it.
  2. Notice how many times you internalise your successes as ‘luck’ or ‘I only …’. Remember how much time and effort you put into it.
  3. Keep a ‘happy diary’ and learn to celebrate your successes – big or small
  4. When you receive a compliment or praise for your work, try to respond firstly with ‘thank you’ before ‘oh, this old thing I found in the sale’ or ‘I didn’t really do anything’. You could be hurting the other person’s feelings by questioning their judgement
  5. Adopt a learning mindset – know that you will always have something to learn, you will make mistakes along the way and no-one is ever quite perfect.

By Sara Duxbury, Business Psychologist

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