If The Imposter Syndrome Is Undermining Your Leadership Role, Tackle It Head On

You’ve worked all your life to become the boss, to take charge, to lead your company (or, at least, your department) to success. But when you finally get to sit down in that big comfy leather chair behind that impressive desk, have you ever felt like the biggest phony in the world?

When you’re an executive, you’re not exactly encouraged to come forward to openly discuss your insecurities. Instead, you’re supposed to demonstrate all the traits of great leadership, which include self-assurance, tough-mindedness and stability. But the fact is, many business people who are promoted into leading roles find themselves confronting massive self-doubt about their suitability for the part.

This phenomenon was first labeled “Imposter Syndrome” back in 1978 in an academic study that was strictly centered on the women who were finally able to put a few cracks in the glass ceiling of male-dominated business leadership. Many of those female executives believed they were only promoted because either they were lucky or judged to be better than they were. The reality was, deep down, they believed they were frauds who would be exposed.

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). Societal conditioning is also to blame; Australian business consultant Suzanne Mercier, who helps her clients deal with the problem, says, “Men are conditioned from a very early age to be successful, so success is expected. Their fear is a fear of failure. However, women are conditioned to be feminine. Career success might be wished for, but not expected. Their fear is more commonly the fear of success because they know they'll have to give something up if they're successful, such as family, partner, children, friends, and life balance.”

Whatever the cause, suffering from the Imposter Syndrome can create real problems at the workplace. Those dealing with the problem tend to display the following behaviors:
* Difficulty accepting praise as being genuine
* Feeling that peers with the same responsibilities are somehow more qualified or better at their jobs
* Afraid of new responsibilities or challenges because they’re afraid of failure
* Abnormal reaction to constructive criticism
* Anxiety over others “seeing through” their lack of ability
If you’re feeling like an imposter in your business role, don’t push the panic button, because you’re far from alone. Dr. Gail Matthews from the Dominican College in California estimates that approximately 70% of all people have suffered from it at one time or another in their careers.

And the good news is that there are ways to overcome your insecurities. Here are a few suggestions on how to feel more entitled to your executive title, from Dr. Valerie Young, author of How to Feel As Bright and Capable As Everyone Seems to Think You Are:

Be Aware
When you can identify when your Imposter Syndrome is sneaking into your thoughts and actions, try to keep track of what triggers them--and learn to quickly identify them as not being based in reality.

Rethink Your Doubts
Try to rewrite your internal negative narratives by reminding yourself that you’re handling the job well and that, as the old saying goes, nobody’s perfect.

Discuss Your Doubts
Find trusted co-workers or business associates (or even a therapist) with whom you feel you can share your inner downer dialogues; they can help you work through them (and it’s always best to drag these beasts out into the daylight).

Look Forward, Not Backward
Instead of dwelling on a situation that turned out badly, think about how to do things differently if you’re ever faced with it again. Focus on positive future changes rather than past negatives.

Be Nice to Yourself
If you are plagued by feelings of being an imposter, you probably have a mindset in which you’re giving everyone around you the benefit of the doubt (or even assuming that they’re better than they are). Try to give yourself the same leeway and be nice to yourself, even when you screw up. Better yet, reward yourself when you get something really right!

Another exercise you might find very useful in terms of better helping you affirm your professional identity and place in the world is the Values Elicitation Exercise you’ll find here.

My personal favorite thought to keep things in perspective is Marianne Williamson’s famous quote (often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela): “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”

Again, Imposter Syndrome is a far from unusual condition--it’s especially common if you’ve just been promoted or are trying a new venture. Just remember dealing with Imposter Syndrome is better than sinking in it; with the right effort, you’ll move past it and assume your leadership role with grace, style and confidence.

And, by the way, it sure beats experiencing the Dunning-Kruger Effect--that’s where you think you’re a whole lot better than you are. And I know we’ve all met a few of those in our lives.

[Disguise Image: Mike Flippo via Shutterstock]

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  • Yvonne Manzi

    Imposter is widely accepted. But the original, correct and generally recommended spelling of the word is impostor.