When it comes to this adulthood game, I bet a lot of us feel like frauds. We can’t quite believe that we’re doing all this big, clever grown-up stuff, and we wonder when we’ll be found out.
A version of this feeling is referred to by psychologists as imposter phenomenon, more informally known as imposter syndrome.
It’s the feeling that we achieve our professional success by luck, not merit, and that we’re about to be found out as the undeserving frauds we really are.
How imposter syndrome affects us
Imposter syndrome can manifest differently depending on the individual. One person might drive themselves to distraction with their perfectionism, because they’re so self-critical they believe themselves to be a failure if they can’t do all parts of their job brilliantly. (Perfection is impossible to achieve all the time. Result: they often feel like a failure).
Another may fear asking for help or support from their peers for fear that they’ll be “found out”. (Everyone needs help these days. Work is just too hard, life too demanding. Result: they often feel like a failure).
Here are some tips on dealing with imposter syndrome.
Remember: you are not alone.
Reportedly, about 70% of people suffer from these feelings at some point.So if you feel like an imposter from time to time, or even a lot, it may help to know that it’s normal to feel this way.
To be a leader, just act like one.
People new to management can be especially prone to imposter syndrome. It’s easy to assume there are qualities to being a leader that only a special few people are gifted with.
But to be a leader you just need to take the leadership actions.
Check in with your team regularly. Give effective praise when it’s due. Coach when you need to. Deliver constructive criticism when you need to. Enforce standards consistently. If someone lets the team down, let them know about it. And so on. None of these management actions is technically hard, but it’s hard to do them all the time. It’s hard to do them without getting tired, or asking yourself “who am I to be doing this?”
If you stand at the front of the room, people will listen. When you pick up the marker and go to the whiteboard, people are glad it’s you, not them. By playing the part, you’re doing the job. If you’re a leader, your team just wants you to lead. It’s one of the most difficult lessons to learn.
Nobody is ever the finished article. You will have development needs but that doesn’t mean you’re an imposter. The more you do your job, or practise your skills, the better you become.
So practise the things that make you feel like an imposter until you’re an adept, then an expert. And when you get good at something, make a note of what it feels like to be the one in the room who is good. Then you’ll recognise the feeling the next time. Work hard and learn all you can.
Get a support network
Whether it’s inside work or outside, build a network of peers at your level, with your skillset, or with skills you feel you lack. Speak to them, join forums, get advice about learning new skills and discuss your challenges in general terms. The endorsement from peers that you’re doing okay and that your challenges are normal will count for a lot.
Get feedback from your manager
Don’t leave it to an annual review. If you tend to experience any kind of anxiety about your performance, regular feedback is a great way to deal with it, so make sure you’re checking in with your boss regularly, not just during appraisal season. Some managers will assume you know exactly what you’re doing unless you ask for help. But less extrovert people may find it difficult to ask for help. Check-ins provide an opportunity to do that.
Get clarity on your role
A solid job description and an understanding of the objectives and expectations around your role will help you a lot, as will an understanding of your manager’s expectations (see above).
Change your relationship with failure
I wonder whether a large part of imposter syndrome stems from our flawed relationship with the idea of failure. Speak to a sports coach about “repeating an exercise to the point of failure” and you’ll realise that the purpose is to get stronger and better. In other words, failure is an ESSENTIAL part of growth.
Speak to any successful athlete, scientist, inventor or business leader and they will likely have a different relationship with failure to many of us. If we can all recognise that mistakes are inevitable – and useful – then we won’t see failure as something to be feared any more, and we won’t feel like such a fraud just because something didn’t work. As the famed American businessman Thomas J. Watson said: “Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really: double your rate of failure.”
Keep an eye on the future
When you come out of education and enter the world of work, it’s tempting to think that whatever job you can get is all you’re worth. Some people’s self-image gets frozen right there, thanks to a toxic blend of negative self-talk and a rigid comfort zone. Don’t believe your inner belittler: you can always develop.
Trust your seniors
If you believe your manager is much smarter or more accomplished than you, then trust that they hired you for a reason, and that they’re keeping you on because they know you’re good. After all, they’re smart and accomplished. They can spot value and talent.
If you care, you’re probably great
Hopefully by now it will be clear that nearly everyone suffers from imposter syndrome. Knowing this, and recognising what form yours takes, will help you to recognise it and manage it.
Perhaps your imposter syndrome is really just a sign that you care about the job you’re doing. And if you care enough to worry, you’re probably already doing a great job.