• pic1
  • pic2
  • pic3
  • pic4
  • pic5
  • pic6

High achiever impostor syndrome

Ever contemplated how many months/weeks/days/hours or even minutes before you're exposed as a 'total fraud'?

Is there a certain inevitability about being usurped as top dog? If this chimes with your reality then you many be interested to learn that impostor syndrome (aka impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is alive and barking deep inside the skulls of many a leader. One scientific survey* suggested that 70% of leaders experience at least one such torrid episode during their working lives, though I wonder if this stat' is wildly underestimated. Maybe it's just that the percentage is rising? My research indicates that IS is lurking somewhere inside every single leader; certain of my clients talk of their chronic condition (meaning it's become a constant distraction).

Do you struggle to internalise your accomplishments? Maybe you believe it's the combination of good fortune and your veritable army of guardian angels that protect you as you leapfrog friends and peers? Maybe your fast-track progression has taken on its own unstoppable momentum? I used to ask myself if people are born lucky (or unlucky). It sometimes seems so, though surely we manufacture good or bad luck. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) once said "I do not want a good General; I want a lucky one". Therein lies a clue…

Perhaps you simply found yourself in the right place at the right time? Perhaps you think that you were only promoted because other hopefuls proved more lacklustre than you? Maybe you blagged about prior accomplishments so successfully that people actually started believing you?

But is it finally time for your comeuppance? Are you sensing panic deep inside that has begun to fluctuate like some ghastly giant pendulum in a horror movie?

Although telltale signs of impostor syndrome personality trait have been around since Adam and Eve, the term 'impostor syndrome' was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in their paper 'The imposter** phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention'.Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247. Subsequent research confirms that both sexes share a tendency to ignore evidence that they are intelligent by choosing to imagine that everyone has made a mistake in assuming they are.

Here are a few of the many negative behavioural traits associated with impostor syndrome:

  • Putting in excessively long hours- our dog-eat-dog world of work is unforgiving of actual or perceived underperformance. So impostors strive to compensate for their privately-sensed ineptitude by working longer and longer hours to present their best possible face which, even then, is rarely good enough in their minds. This inevitably skews Life-Work balance. The afflicted become obsessed by detail at the expense of creating windows for self-reflection and strategic thinking. We need those at the top to provide clarity of vision plus crisp coherent communication and to build gaps in their busy schedules to step outside the hubbub of the day-to-day. Sadly, impostors risk burning out like a failed rocket launch, so ask yourself right now if working longer and longer hours honestly makes you feel any less of a fake? Whoever wrote on their tombstone "I should have spent more time in the office."? Could your impostor syndrome be just a mental Tweet sent to remind you to work differently today = SMARTer?
  • Running too far ahead of your pack- I believe that working excessive hours accentuates the problem. It is unwise for any leader to behave like Superwoman or Superman since certain followers of super-achievers become lazy - and that results in piling yet more pressure on you, creating a vicious circle. Colleagues need to be given every chance to compete and succeed and to be fairly and properly recognised by you. Increased separation from one's team only magnifies the illusion of over-exposure that is so evident in IS.
  • Constantly comparing- impostors routinely place other people's strengths on lofty pedestals whilst choosing to remain blinkered to the same individual's accompanying weaknesses. Remember that no one is perfect; comparisons can be subjective and often biased, which is the reason we introduced 360 degree appraisals to validate or negate assumptions.
  • Auto-discounting own contribution- unfortunately, the greater your successes, the greater the likelihood of distancing yourself from your successes - 'genetic grounding' kicks in to prevent us from getting too full of ourselves. I've coached so many 'quiet' and 'noisy' leaders to artfully combine asking of well-crafted 'open questions' with actively listening, which together must rank above most leadership competencies. I'm talking about a sophisticated art form that needs to be learnt and practiced. By adopting a heuristic approach of encouraging and exploring situations from diverse viewpoints, one's team reaches better conclusions quicker. However, impostors would argue that any great ideas emanating from such brain storming sessions were not theirs at all and that the genius was in the splendid creativity of their colleagues. Hmmm…
  • Overly needy of praise/external validation- an ability of leaders to self-motivate cannot be underrated. Impostors often rely too heavily on the steady flow of external encouragement. Sadly, as we rise through the ranks overt praise becomes less and less bountiful - particularly if we auto-discount those niceties preferred by those colleagues/employees/suppliers who curry favour.
  • Overly vulnerable to direct criticism- impostors are particularly vulnerable to being knocked for six by direct personal criticism. When hyperbole-loaded criticism is directed towards you (e.g. you are always completely muddled whenever you talk at our Monday morning team meetings. No one understands anything you say). My advice is to seek immediate clarification since the perpetrator often goes on the explain that it is only 10% of your performance that is being called into question. They may even go on to admit that there's a fair chance that you were right all along.
  • Catastrophising - high levels of stress can amplify your ingrained fear of failure.
  • Attempting to control the uncontrollable - it is heathy to understand that some things in one's working life simply cannot be changed. Focus on creating solutions to problems that can be sorted by you and your team.
  • Believing that inadequacies stem from "not being clever enough"/"not having gone to the right school"/"not being creative enough"/"not having the right accent"/"social ineptitude"/"not having a willy" - all of these have been suggested to me as contributing factors for raising the odds of being 'found out'. It's best to focus on where you can add tangible value… and still more value. If you feel that you're different (perhaps by race, creed, socioeconomic background, gender or sexuality), don't inadvertently fuel the power that others may use to overtly or covertly smite you. Instead build links with others who are similar to you; identify with these fellow sufferers and make them your allies.
  • Jumping before pushed- even though this 'bad blood' is often internalised, a leader may decide to resign instead of facing the indignity of being ousted. This may trigger a sense of disbelief in those left behind… "we didn't see that coming.". Departure is often the wrong move since your impostor syndrome gets boxed up alongside your other personal possessions, stubbornly embedded on your mental hard drive, only to be unpacked and ready for your next privileged position somewhere different. Far better to deal with cause and effect.
  • Frequent use of self-deprecating words such as 'only', 'just' in conversations with others, and in 'self talk' (what you say to yourself)- this helps perpetuate your underachievement myth inside your mind. Be aware = Beware.

Here are just a handful of the many ideas I regularly draw on to help mitigate impostor syndrome, whenever it raises its ugly face:

  • Recognise that worrying about what might happen in the future is almost invariably worse than reality - adequate preparation helps power down your inner tornados. Quickly think through your courses of action for different eventualities. Set yourself a fixed time limit and avoid extending this. Even through I have been coaching leaders for almost 20 years I still find myself 'worrying' before most coaching sessions, which friends remind me is just me being crazy. It's true of course - I routinely put in excessive hours researching a candidate's particular challenges even though I already know in my heart and mind what I need to do. There is a plus side to most downsides - keeping bang up-to-date with the latest thinking is interesting and maintains that all-important freshness in the ways we interact. Conversely arrogance is dangerous since this unpopular leadership trait can lead to leaders getting washed up.
  • Make a list of situations when your contribution mattered - it is too easy to disregard what is going well. Meticulously take stock of your successes. Record 'contemporaneous evidence' (as it happens) as that's more convincing than 'remembered evidence' (perhaps recorded months or years later). Then re-read this motivational list whenever you're down on your uppers
  • Recognise your own shortcomings - even joke about them. For example, take one of my many shortcomings - I'm a modest 5'6" and for years I found tall people seriously intimidating. I got well used to tall people edging themselves down walls in a kind attempt to match and mirror my diminutive stature, whilst I end up on tiptoes. Nowadays I point out what's happening so we can both happily laugh out loud instead of feeling awkward.
  • Abandon perfectionism - striving for outright perfectionism wastes team effort, time and money; know when enough really is enough so that you can confidently move on to other tasks. This is not about lowering the bar; it is about deciding on the optimal height to jump by resetting it so that you don't get hurt and go on to undervalue yourself.
  • Become even clearer with yourself and your team about what the primary goals are in order to help your organisation truly excel.
  • Consciously build time to your schedule for positively reframing your negatives - there really are multiple positives lurking behind every negative. Recognise past mistakes as stepping stones in disguise. 'Reframing' can be such a powerful concept that I use in counselling and hypnotherapy, as well as in my day-to-day business performance coaching for leaders. For example, when eight years old I won the school perseverance cup only to be told by a teacher as I walked off the stage that "people only won the perseverance cup if they were born to fail.". What should have been a happy day left me in unconsolable floods of tears. I've only recently started to reframe that memory since I've only recently recognised that perseverance, more so than natural talent, is right up there when it comes to top leadership traits. So that unkind knock back has finally become another of my powerful driving forces. "If something's not working, it's your duty to change.". So persevere - it's game over if we were ever to stop learning.
  • Build on your distinctive strengths and lessen your weaknesses - become an 'authentic leader', which means playing to your strengths and being true to yourself and your beliefs. It's a grave mistake to fake it. The zany comedian Groucho Marx once quipped "Be yourself; everyone else is taken.". I often invest effort in increasing the self-awareness and self-assuredness of my clients, as there are usually long-lasting gains to be had by appreciating one's similarities and differences by using data that I have been meticulously building up over 20 years.
  • Replace adrenalin-fuelled negative thoughts and fears with adrenalin-fuelled positive feelings of excitement - this is easier to implement than you might expect.
  • Extend your exercise routine (after first checking with your doctor, as appropriate). Keep yourself fit, even by walking briskly more, since regular aerobic exercise undoubtedly stimulates mental positivity. Conversely sitting at one's desk and staring at one's computer all day stimulates mental negativity. Consider holding more walking meetings and investing in a 'standing desk', which are becoming more commonplace.
  • Abstain, avoid or at least reduce alcohol intake - now this one may seem like a step too far… I may be starting to sound more like your mother, though over the years I have studied many hundreds of people suffering from stress, work volume overload and depression. Taking alcohol out of the equation can produce almost immediate benefit to bolster one's ability to cope and thrive and… lose weight. I believe that most things in life are OK in moderation though occasionally we need to apply absolute conditions. This one continues to be one of my own work-in-progress areas and I now only drink on special occasions, which fortunately remain bountiful.
  • Learn to control the controllable and actively set aside the uncontrollable - You are going to feel stronger for that.
  • Apply mental jujutsu - fighting impostor syndrome head on is a mistake since it is more powerful than you; instead work with it. Have you noticed that it often turns out to be the more hesitant starters in life that end up being life's winners? Take a long hard look at your fears and negative feelings that are currently holding you back from taking necessary actions to achieve your highest aspirations, and transform them into even more powerful motivational positives. Easier said than done? Then now's time for a reframe…

Finally, don't forget to smile. Humour is one of life's best tonics of all. It is easy to take yourself too seriously. Laugh off past mistakes whilst thinking through what you need to learn from whatever happened. Having fun at work and laughing at your dark side are essential ingredients for being successful in finally casting adrift your dogged impostor syndrome.

* Sakulku, Jaruwan (2011). "The Imposter Phenomenon". International Journal of Behavioral Science. 6 (1): 73–92. Impostor can be correctly written as imposter (with an 'e'), although impostor (with an 'o') has the edge in most English reference sources.