You know the feeling you get when you get the big assignment or the big promotion, that you have fooled your boss into believing you are more qualified than you really are. You know that you are supposed to accept the challenge but wait for the moment that you will be exposed. You feel like a fraud being credited with rewards that you don’t deserve. We have all experienced the insecurity of potentially saying the wrong thing, making the wrong decision, or not having the answer to the tough problem.
We have been told how hard it is to achieve success and that the challenges sometimes seem insurmountable, so when you are recognized for something that didn’t seem to require the avalanche of effort success seems to require, you feel like you haven’t deserved it. There has been a mistake, and you will be found out. You feel like an imposter.
Imposter feelings can hold you back, keep you on the edge, and prevent you from being your best and adding value. Listening to the noise of this phenomenon will affect your behavior in a negative way, and prevent you from enjoying future success. It may show up as moodiness, not speaking up, not sharing valuable information, becoming belligerent when you feel people are questioning your competence, stalling rather than making decisions, fearing asking questions or taking on the full responsibility of your new position. These actions are, in effect sabotaging your success. You received the recognition because you can provide a perspective, a skill, insight or because you have the unique quality required for the position. The expectation is that you step up to participate confidently.
There is a cost to companies when qualified employees are influenced by imposter feelings -fearing risk, fearing being exposed, procrastinating or getting caught in perfectionism – rendering them less effective, less engaged and causing them to contribute less.
These feelings do not discriminate, occasionally paralyzing powerful executives and successful business owners. Many leaders and experts who appear to be cool, calm and collected feel a tinge of fear when they face uncertainty, new experiences and the burden of decision-making. Such is the business environment we experience, yet decisions must be made. The leaders who will come out on top will be those who push beyond imposter feelings and call on their knowledge and experience, and collaborate with equally talented colleagues to make the best decisions.
Suffering from imposter phenomenon can stall a career
Imposter phenomenon is not recognized as an official disorder, but the people who experience it feel very real symptoms. They often believe that they do not have the skill, knowledge, experience or talent required for their position, and that they have only fooled people into believing that they do. They experience self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. They worry that they will be expose as an imposter, and frequently exhibit perfectionist behaviors, spending hours upon hours fine-tuning their work for fear of the response they may receive. They label any successes they achieve as the result of coincidence or luck.
Imposter phenomenon can limit productivity, stand in the way of promotions, and interfere with job effectiveness. People who feel they are not qualified for a senior position are less likely to pursue a promotion. Fear of being wrong may prevent them from sharing their insights or ideas. They may also procrastinate on projects because they dread a negative outcome. They cannot truly enjoy their successes, and stress can have a negative impact on their health and overall job performance.
How can people know if they are suffering from imposter phenomenon?
Being aware of common triggers is a start. Beginning a new career or getting promoted to a new position with more visibility or responsibility can be catalysts. So can being asked to lead a crucial project, receiving recognition like a pay raise or an award, or anything else involving a major transition or exposure of some kind.
Anxiety is a frequent symptom for those with imposter phenomenon. Sufferers live in constant fear that someone will discover their lack of skills or intelligence. They wait for the inevitable “other shoe to drop” – the moment when they are told they need to leave because they don’t belong. They are often embarrassed for feeling this way and believe they are the only ones with these insecurities.
People with imposter phenomenon report a lack of self-confidence. They tend to equate achievements being lucky or temporary lapses in judgment on the part of the person giving them an award. They are often their own worst critics, downplaying successes by talking about all the things that went wrong instead of those that went right. When working with teams, they credit success solely to other team members. They avoid anything that could result in their exposure as an imposter, including interviews, speaking engagements, new positions, or leadership roles. They have an inescapable sense that their colleagues are smarter and more qualified than they are.
Symptoms of imposter phenomenon can also mimic those of depression. People are upset when they can’t meet their self-imposed standards of perfection. They feel discouraged, inadequate, and view their capabilities in a negative way. They are not receptive to constructive criticism and often view it as a reminder of another way they have failed. And when they do succeed, they feel no sense of accomplishment or personal pride.
Can people move past imposter phenomenon and have successful, fulfilling careers?
Most people report a natural waning of imposter phenomenon symptoms as their experience and self-confidence grow. But group therapy sessions among peers where everyone feels free to discuss common challenges and fears have proven to help individuals with imposter feelings to push beyond them. There are a number of ways to mitigate imposter feelings
- Keep records of any and all positive feedback.
- Seek out supportive, understanding mentors or coaches.
- Make lists of personal strengths and abilities.
- Realize that everyone makes mistakes and that no one has a perfect record.
- Make lists of scenarios where feelings of being an imposter usually strike, and develop plans with ways to address those feelings when they surface.
Managers can also help diminish the effects of imposter phenomenon with their employees.
- Give proper training and support to employees put into new positions.
- Point out that perfection is not an expectation and stress the importance of having a good work-life balance.
- View mistakes at work as learning experiences and treat them as such.
- Provide forums where employees feel safe to discuss their concerns.
- Always discuss strengths before weaknesses when evaluating employee performance. Strengths versus weaknesses should be highlighted at a minimum of a five-to-one ratio. Emphasize the importance of continuous learning and improvement.
Studies show that women are more likely to admit to the problem and often experience more intense symptoms. Some experts believe that the problem begins in childhood when children are rewarded according to standard academic and physical standards that do not take into consideration other redeeming talents, abilities and qualities. The things that they find rewarding are not the things that get awarded, and their perception is that success is a struggle and out of reach. Those that study imposter phenomenon find that it appears to be more prevalent with people who were the first generation from their families to go to college and with women and men who work in careers or hold positions traditionally associated with the opposite gender.
Everyone experiences moments of uncertainty. Those moments do not have to stand in the way of career development. The key lies in recognizing the symptoms of imposter phenomenon as they appear, acknowledging that many successful people have similar feelings, and taking steps to address them before they have a chance to multiply. Awareness of these feelings is the first step. Accepting of your qualifications and realizing that you deserve the recognition you are awarded is the second step. With the right tools, no one has to let imposter phenomenon keep them from reaching their fullest potential and making their best contribution.