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How to manage feeling like an imposter at work

03 December 2019 By Chris Morrison GAICD

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This is the second part of my series on Imposter Syndrome. In my last blog we explored how and why people suffer from Imposter Syndrome and we discovered that not only is it extremely prevalent in the workplace, it is a topic that is not often discussed or addressed.

 

Imposter Syndrome occurs when an individual has a collection of thoughts that trigger feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure and self-doubt despite evident success. Those that were interviewed shared thoughts that often ran through their minds, including “how did I get here?”, “am I good enough”, “what if I fail?”.  I also shared my experiences of Imposter Syndrome, particularly when I launched Meritos. I believe it is important to share these moments to help normalise the syndrome and to allow others an opportunity to understand their feelings.

 

I also explored some research around Imposter Syndrome and shared a recent 2018 study, which claimed that under pressure, Imposter Syndrome actually affects men greater than women. I wanted to delve deeper into this research to understand why this may happen and its implications for the workplace.

 

The research is aptly named ‘Are all imposters created equal?’ and discovered that male imposters have more severe reactions to performance stimuli than females. For example, when faced with negative criticism, males reported higher anxiety, decreased their effort and trended towards a poor performance, whereas females when faced with the same negative criticism increased their effort and performed at a higher level. The researchers then performed another study with the same college undergrads that created a high accountability situation. Half the students were told their exam results would be shown to a professor (high accountability) on their course, whereas the other half would have their results revealed to a stranger (low accountability). The women suffering from Imposter Syndrome during this scenario were largely unaffected by the increased accountability; however, the men who believed their exams were being revealed to a professor showed increased anxiety, trended towards a poor performance and decreased their effort.

 

Why is this the case? The researchers deduced that men suffering from Imposter Syndrome performed poorly because they feared being found out and chose to self-sabotage to explain their inevitable poor performance. The researchers believed that traditional gender norms may play into this scenario due to the perception that society generally values males who demonstrate high competence.

 

This research provides further insight into Imposter Syndrome, particularly how it can affect men and women differently in the workplace. I reached out to Glenn Ball from Executive Central, who is an executive coach and consultant with a Masters of Science (Coaching Psychology) and more than 30 years’ industry experience to hear his thoughts. Glenn expressed that during his career he has discovered that most people suffer from Imposter Syndrome at some point and it doesn’t always present as someone who is highly anxious or shy, it can also be expressed quite aggressively and through arrogance. For managers and leaders, it is important to understand the implications of the syndrome because it affects everyone differently.

 

So how can we support employees who may be experiencing imposter thoughts and feelings? Glenn said there are a few ways to approach the issue including, leadership workshops, where Imposter Syndrome is discussed, as well as one-on-one coaching. However, most importantly when presented with a problem, people can either change what they do, or change the way they view it. This simple but highly effective approach helps people to reframe the negative thoughts and feelings Imposter Syndrome creates and with time and through positive experiences eventually overcome it. Glenn said we all have an inner coach and an inner critic and it’s important to not let your inner critic take over.

 

Building confidence is also an integral part of overcoming the syndrome and encouraging employees to face their fears and do what they believe is unachievable can help to prove their negative thoughts wrong. For example, if public speaking is extremely challenging for someone then doing it can create positive experiences that prove their critical voice incorrect.

 

There is no definitive way to support someone suffering from Imposter Syndrome but initially creating awareness around the issue and helping them to understand why they are having these thoughts and feelings is key to addressing it.

 

Glenn also recommends these strategies that form part of his leadership development workshop.

  • Turn up the “coach” voice – focus on optimism
  • Keep “critic” voice in check – keep a focus on these thoughts
  • Imperfection is the norm – no-one’s perfect, mistakes create learning
  • Right questions lead to best answers – you don’t have to have all the answers – it’s better you don’t
  • You can’t grow without stretching yourself – associate vulnerability with growth
  • Grey is better than black and white – embrace ambiguity and uncertainty
  • Most problems are managed not solved – nothing is neat and easy
  • Feedback is a gift – ask for it from those you trust
  • Appreciate what makes you unique – we are not all the same
  • Relax! – things come into better perspective if you can relax
 

If you feel you are experiencing self-doubt, fear of failure or wonder “am I good enough?”, then talk to others and use your support network. Chances are you are not alone.


We would love to hear how you manage Imposter Syndrome or how you overcame it.  Please share your tips or strategies on our social posts as this may be key to helping someone else.


About the author

 

Chris Morrison is the founder and Director of Meritos, an executive search and recruitment business working with purpose-driven organisations. If you're interested in connecting with Chris, you can find him on LinkedIn here. You can also reach him on 02 9055 6836 or via email at chris.morrison@meritos.com.au