Imposter Syndrome: Understanding and Overcoming It

Most of us have experienced it one time or another throughout our careers. It most often seems to creep up on the eve of a high-stakes presentation or meeting, arriving like clockwork to fill us with doubt, despite all the preparation we have invested.

You’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon that affects many individuals, characterized by feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt – even for those we may never expect to suffer from a moment’s doubt.

A healthy dose of humility is never a bad thing – that is, a healthy dose. Unchecked, however, excessive imposter syndrome can lead to burnout and even dissuade you from “going for it” when it comes to your goals and stretch opportunities.

The constant drumbeat of a negative internal dialogue can quickly chip away at your confidence. You will be able to survive or get by, but you will miss out on the best of life and work. You will be stuck operating at your base level where fear, survival, and instant gratification are- never scaling the heights of the higher levels where you will find your untapped potential lives and where the best of life can be accessed – peace, ease, confidence, creativity, and joy.

This higher plane remains stubbornly out of view for so many. Despite having achieved significant accomplishments or having the required skills and knowledge to perform a job, even high performers often feel like they are not good enough and are constantly in fear of being exposed as a fraud – I’ve seen it firsthand throughout my career with highly accomplished leaders. And it’s almost always a surprise.

But it shouldn’t be by now. I’ve been there myself. I remember an occasion when I presented a budget report to my boss (the CEO). I was feeling pretty pleased with how slick my reports looked – only for my boss to immediately zero in on a few errors. He latched onto them so quickly that I felt rocked by whiplash. 

I remember how foolish I felt.

I felt so low that I was resigned to giving up my dream of being a CFO and go back to working in restaurants. I know there was NO WAY I would survive this one.  I didn’t want to.  I didn’t deserve to. I wanted to give up. I left to go figure out what the hell to do with my life and career. 

I slept on it (hardly) and the next week I fixed this issue when I re-presented it.  It all went well this time – no damage done. My boss likely hadn’t thought much about the error again; it was the narrative in my head that almost sank me. Nothing more. Not anything he did, said, or even felt probably.  Just my own narrative that crushed me.

If you have felt the same way we are in very good company, as it turns out. One common misconception about imposter syndrome is that it is rare and affects only a few individuals. However, studies have shown that imposter syndrome is prevalent across all industries and professions.

Another misconception is that it’s something that simply must be suffered; when in fact, it is possible to overcome imposter syndrome with the right mindset and strategies.


How Imposter Syndrome Affects Workplace Culture and Team Dynamics

Imposter syndrome isn’t an individual problem; it sends ripple effects that can significantly impact workplace culture and team dynamics. Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome often find themselves essentially pretending to be someone else (wearing a “mask”), leading to a downward spiral of stress, anxiety, and reduced confidence.

This behavior can be contagious, resulting in a workplace in which it can feel like putting on a show and jockeying for validation is the norm.

This “culture of pretending” can greatly mute your true potential and power, resulting in expressing only a fraction of your real value. If your workplace does not feel safe to make mistakes and be authentic, it may not be the right place for you.


Strategies to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

To overcome imposter syndrome, start building new habits. It is a journey of growth that takes discipline, dedication, and self-reflection.

·         It starts with a foundation of physical health – exercise, diet/hydration, and getting the right sleep.

·         Get to know yourself more deeply through meditation, journaling, and self-assessment. ·         Work on debugging counter-productive mental models – the narratives in your head focusing on trivial mistakes that likely nobody remembers except for you.

·         All of this takes planning with accountability check-ins to keep individuals on track. Getting help is critical, and individuals should seek assistance from a coach, mentor, therapist, trainer, or other professionals.

 How Managers and Colleagues Can Support Individuals Experiencing Imposter Syndrome

 Just as imposter syndrome isn’t an individual problem, it often “takes a village” to take it on and push back on toxic cultures. Managers and colleagues can support those experiencing imposter syndrome by leading the way in being authentic.

·         Leaders who are secure in themselves can model the right behaviors – admit mistakes, show vulnerability and celebrate those who are uniquely themselves.

·         Being curious, asking questions, and making the workplace emotionally safe for everyone to be true to their authentic selves is critical.

·         Leaders should avoid having “canned” expectations of others and unintentionally putting those expectations on others. I recall a senior team workshop designed to improve teamwork earlier in my career.  A personality type facilitator came in and gave us our personality profile assessments.  Pretty quickly it became clear what the “right” profile was – at least, according to our CEO.  He wanted people to fit an ideal profile – not coincidentally, it matched up perfectly with his own persona. This is an example of what NOT to do.  

The truth is we ALL have confidence issues. The only question is how you will respond – your program of self-management can help you access the tools you need when low confidence strikes.  

When have you experienced imposter syndrome throughout your career, or even your personal life? And what steps did you take to overcome it? I’d love to hear from you.