“I feel like a fraud”, “I’m worried I’m not good enough”, “They’re going to find out about me!”
These are statements that lots of my coaching clients have made over the past 13 years.
Impostor phenomenon was first coined in the late 1970s, following the work of psychologists Dr Pauline R Clance and Suzanne A Imes. It is a very real thing.
Whilst it often hasn’t been the presenting issue with clients, after a few sessions it becomes apparent that it’s at the heart of why a leader isn’t performing at their optimum. Struggling with their team. Struggling with colleagues. Simply not delivering what they could and should.
While impostor syndrome can affect anyone it tends to affect women more than men. For more on this, check out this excellent piece in the Telegraph by Claire Cohen
Typical signs of impostor syndrome
- You focus on where things have gone wrong, rather than things you’ve led that have gone right
- You believe anyone could do your role, you’re nothing special
- Good enough is never good enough, anything less than perfect is unacceptable
- You think something is going to fail before you’ve even begun
- You’re hooked into busy-ness, rather than true productivity – jumping to others’ urgent items, rather than your own important ones
- You internalise a lot of your feelings of feeling like a fraud, trapped in a cycle of negative self-talk
If any of these resonate then don’t worry. Here are some approaches which have worked with many of my coaching clients that might help.
Ways to tackle impostor syndrome
- Keep a journal – whilst this isn’t for everyone, without a doubt this is the approach that has worked for most of my clients suffering from impostor syndrome. You can write as little or as much as you want. The main thing is to highlight at least three things you achieved at work that day. Do this for 30 days and watch what happens.
- Set some goals – one of the things that I’ve found is that a person has lost their way and part of the reason is that they don’t have an overarching set of goals they’re striving for. So their focus becomes on the immediacy of their role and their workplace. Goals that past clients have signed up for include running a half-marathon or learning a language. The funny thing is, goals like these can have a knock-on effect on you at work – building your confidence in tackling different situations.
- Build a professional support network – these should be colleagues (past and/or present) who you trust enough to share the good, bad and ugly of what’s going on for you at work. By sharing, you start to realise that (a) you’re not alone in how you’re feeling, (b) that helping others work through issues takes your focus of you and (c) that it’s okay to celebrate when things have gone well.
- Get 360 degree feedback – this can be scary if you’ve not done this before, although most people in a leadership role will have experienced a 360 at some point. By getting feedback from those around you (your boss, peers, staff and customers) you’ll see the positive things that people recognise in you. Key is to have the session facilitated – this will help you to identify patterns, appreciate the positives and develop a realistic action plan to tackle some of your development needs.
- Update your CV – this can be a fantastic and fairly simple way of boosting your confidence. Don’t fall in to the trap of listing tasks from your various roles (you’d be surprised at the amount of people who still do that, even at a leadership level!) Focus on key achievements in each role. A good rule of thumb is to highlight around five for your current role, three for roles in the past five years, and then one or two for roles before that. It’s also okay to have an awards section for awards/recognition that you’ve either won or been a finalist for.
- Get a coach – I say that this to friends and colleagues a lot. I really don’t believe you can succeed at being an effective manager or leader in today’s world without a coach to help you. You wouldn’t train to climb Everest without the right support team around you, so what makes you think you can scale the heights of leadership without the same support? A coach can help you understand the underlying patterns of behaviour that are making you feel the way you do and help you execute a plan to overcome them.
- Recognise learning (and failure) is okay – You can’t develop or achieve high performance without understanding that learning and failing a few times is an essential component. All too often, those experiencing impostor syndrome think failure is unacceptable, and that they have to be the expert in their chosen field. Check out this 10 minute TED talk by the psychologist Carol Dweck on why developing a growth (i.e. learning) mindset is crucial for success.
- Keep a positive feedback file – I bet you’ve received lots of positive comments over the years, whether via email or other means. Keep them. Keep them all. I keep mine in an email folder. Look at them on days when you’re struggling. They’ll make you feel better and give you a much needed boost.
- Do things outside of your work that make you feel good – this builds on the second suggestion. In my experience, lots of my clients that have experienced impostor syndrome haven’t had much outside of work to focus on. I’m not talking about parenting or other commitments. I’m talking about hobbies and interests that are just for you and that provide escape. One client ended up combining her need to volunteer with her love of horses – helping out at a stables which works with children with various disabilities. This has boosted her confidence to the extent where she ended up making the leap into a new role.
- Say it out loud to someone you trust – just saying the words “I feel like a fraud” can be incredibly freeing. By putting it out there you’re getting outside of your own head and reducing the internal negative self-talk. The person you say it to could be a coach, a colleague or a friend. Key is that you trust them enough to say it.
Have you ever experienced impostor syndrome during your career? What are the things you’ve done to tackle it? Sharing your comments means you’ll be helping others.
Interested in getting a leadership coach? Receive a complimentary 30 minute telephone consultation when you email us You’ll have the opportunity to discuss your needs and ask questions to make sure you get the coach that’s right for you.
Hayley Lewis is a chartered psychologist and a lecturer on the Masters in Organisational Psychology at City, University of London. She has held various senior leadership roles covering services including organisational development, ICT, customer services and communications. Hayley works with leaders looking to achieve exceptional performance at an individual, team and organisational level.