What Leaders Should Know About Impostor Phenomenon
Marco’s biggest worry was getting discovered as a fraud. He mentioned this to me shortly after landing a top CMO role at a Bay Area tech powerhouse.
His offhand admission revealed a stress point that’s common among many highly qualified leaders and senior executives. In fact, 25 to 30% of high achievers believe they are undeserving of their achievements and status – and that someone important is going to find out. Soon.
This often unspoken fear doesn't only generate stress for top brass, middle management, and startup entrepreneurs. It actually changes the way these leaders and high achievers show up every day, lowering their influence, effectiveness, and chances for advancement.
Who Do We Think We’re Fooling?
"Impostor Phenomenon" (IP), often called Impostor Syndrome, is actually not a syndrome in the clinical sense. It was first identified by Dr. Pauline Clance in 1978 who described it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness… despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments.” Clance’s study of over 150 high-achieving women also found that her subjects persisted in “believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
How IP Jeopardizes Careers
Unaddressed, IP doesn’t only chip away at mental well-being. Its outward symptoms can actually sabotage careers – even of those already at the top – by reducing their effectiveness and influence as problem-solvers, collaborators, and leaders.
Lack of confidence: Many rapid risers find themselves wracked with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. Questioning their abilities, they start to hold back at important meetings, dismissing their own creativity, and making safe – but not necessarily better – decisions.
Knowership: Often appearing as arrogance, this IP symptom arises when executives see mistakes and setbacks as proof of their incompetence. Their preoccupation with appearing flawless blocks learning and growth, and can also manifest as defensiveness.
Work Persona: Adopting a persona that they believe others prefer exposes many executives to two perils. First, others perceive their mask and become suspicious. Second, limiting their full potential to a work persona means they can’t reveal (or leverage) their full slate of assets and gifts.
An Equal Opportunity Affliction
IP affects both male and female executives – about 70% of all adults. Although a common conception is that women suffer from impostor syndrome more than men – a reasonable assertion given society’s historical systemic sexism – the data suggest it afflicts women and men nearly equally.
That’s not to say that historical systemic sexism and cultural conditioning have had no effect on the way men and women respond to IP. While women may more quickly pull out of roles where they feel inadequate, men seem more willing to “fake it till ya make it.”
Racial and ethnic minority groups often suffer from IP, erroneously attributing their success not to their actual achievements and contributions, but to what they see as token representation of their race or ethnicity. Compounding this is the self-imposed burden of feeling that they represent all the people in their group and can never let them down.
And in an almost cruel twist, people with high intelligence, achievement, and perfectionism often feel the effects of IP, worrying that others will eventually discover and expose their fraudulence.
The Smartest Kids In The Class
So where does IP come from, and why does it seem to afflict people in enviable positions of influence? Personality traits, especially struggling with self-efficacy, perfectionism, and neuroticism, are often at the root of IP. High-intensity parenting that excessively pressures children to excel academically may contribute to later impostorism too.
High-achieving students who have always been the smartest kid in the class often land jobs where they’re surrounded by others just as brilliant. Comparing themselves with their new peers, they may experience feelings of ordinariness and begin to question whether they even belong.
The same inadequacy dynamic often occurs in the highly intelligent. Intelligent people tend to flock together, potentially leading to skewed comparisons. Moreover, highly analytical individuals may be skilled at defect detection – and pay unwarranted attention to their shortcomings at the expense of their proficiency.
There’s a school of thought that one of the most practical solutions for overcoming IP is simply waiting it out – especially for young adults. Holly Hutchins, an associate professor of human resource development at the University of Houston, says she likes to frame IP “as a normal developmental experience.”
But people encounter IP at all ages and career stages. For example, when they take on new roles with increased responsibility, a high number of executives and leaders struggle to feel the confidence and assertiveness they’re supposed to demonstrate.
As it happens, nearly half of all the executives with whom I work have experienced, or currently experience, impostor phenomenon. To address Marco's IP, he was instructed on how to reframe his unwarranted fears with new perspectives, and then to manage them with consistent mindfulness practices.
Four Steps To Transforming An IP Mindset
Identify the problem. When fears can be named, they can be objectified and addressed.
Learn how common IP is. The statistics speak for themselves: You’re not alone. As stated previously, about one of every three high achievers struggles with feelings of inadequacy. I’ve witnessed IP countless times in my 25 years in senior roles at Fortune 100 companies – including in myself.
Recognize the voice of your inner saboteur. The critic within wreaks psychological havoc with statements like “I’m not experienced/educated/intelligent/efficient/creative enough.” Start to catch these well-worn internal accusations in the act. Then consciously identify them as the fear-based lies they are.
Strengthen your mental and spiritual muscles. Allotting five minutes of daily “stillness” time for psychological and spiritual health can quiet the voices of fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Meditation is highly effective and can be tailored to one’s own beliefs or religious faith. There are plenty of meditation apps to help stick to this commitment.
Consistently addressing IP in these seemingly small ways can reap big benefits within a few months. Marco says he now feels genuinely confident on the job and deserving of his role. His CEO and board report that they're thrilled with his increased effectiveness and leadership presence.
For many, years of constant self-doubt chatter becomes a kind of "background music' – ambient noise in our heads which shapes our inward and outward selves, often without our awareness. But working to gain reality-based perspective can create a profound mindset shift which dramatically improves both personal and professional performance.
In other words, when executives trust that they’ve earned their positions fairly, the fear of getting “found out” evaporates. Only then can confident leadership flourish.