Have you heard of “Impostor Syndrome?” Maybe you’ve read about it or heard colleagues talk about it—or maybe you struggle with it every day.
Impostor Syndrome—sometimes termed “impostorism”—is a real issue that impacts people from all walks of life and in all levels of the professional world.
It’s true—you know people who look confident and completely put together—but inside, they struggle with self-doubt.
If you struggle with Impostor Syndrome, or you’re a leader of people who might, this article will help you identify classic Impostor Syndrome symptoms, talk about how it’s holding you back as a person and leader, and discuss strategies to help you manage it.
What Is Impostor Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is a deep-rooted feeling that you don’t actually know what you’re doing, and people are going to find out—as if you’re a fraud and have been covering up this whole time. It’s your inability to believe that your successes are a result of your hard work and skills and are deserved.
Despite your accomplishments, you feel inadequate compared to others.
The impostor phenomenon was first recognized in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Initially, they thought the syndrome only applied to women—but later published research revealing it’s an issue for both men and women.
Impostor Syndrome is often seen in leaders who feel a great weight on their shoulders to be perfect and all-knowing. It's also common in high-achievers and perfectionists, and it can seriously impact your self-esteem and self-confidence.
While Impostor Syndrome isn’t recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it is widely accepted by medical professionals as a significant mental health phenomenon with real implications when it comes to self-doubt and overall happiness.
Did you know 70% of people experience impostor feelings? So, you’re not alone. Your coworkers, boss, and employees are also susceptible to Imposter Syndrome—and have probably struggled with it at one point or another.
Wondering how severe your own level of Imposter Syndrome is? You can take a test here to see where you fall.
What Does Impostor Syndrome Actually Look Like?
Here’s an example:
You’ve prepped for an important meeting, done the research, and prepared as much as you can. Yet, the second you walk into the meeting room, you’re flooded with apprehension and you question your own knowledge.
You think your coworkers in the room know more than you, and everyone sitting around the table is confident, capable, and intelligent—but you don’t believe it about yourself.
Here’s the irony—it’s likely other people in the room have the same thoughts you do.
I first learned about Impostor Syndrome years ago from my former boss and mentor. I’d experienced intense feelings of inadequacy and a need to be perfect in my work. In the past, if I made a mistake, I poured over it, apologized profusely, and felt shame for my imperfection.
One morning, after I’d applied for a big promotion, I found a glaring typo on the cover letter I’d already submitted. I was devastated and sat in my office beating myself up over what they were going to think of me and my unprofessionalism. I knew I had blown the opportunity,
My boss happened to come by and found me in a puddle of imposter emotion, questioning myself and my abilities. She intervened and introduced me to the Impostor Phenomenon. She was the first person to put a name to this thing I’d struggled with for years.
She shared that she too, suffered from Impostor Syndrome, and so did some of her seemingly confident, pulled-together agency-head peers. I was shocked to hear people who I looked up to and saw as strong, confident, high-achieving women questioned themselves and felt inadequate on a regular basis.
One of those peers described it to her as getting ready for work each morning and feeling as if she was putting on her mother’s clothes—like she was playing dress-up and pretending to be the professional adult she actually is.
This, my friends, is Impostor Syndrome.
It can look, feel, and sound different for different people. Here are some examples:
- “I’m going to sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
- “If someone asks me, and I don’t know the answer, they’re going to think I’m the wrong person for this job. Everyone is going to know I’m a fraud.”
- “I really don’t deserve to be here right now.”
- “I just got promoted out of luck—all the other candidates were way more qualified than me.”
- “If I did it, anybody can do it.”
Impostor Syndrome is sneaky because all these thoughts combined with feeling like you need to be perfect, puts so much pressure on you. Then all that pressure to be perfect turns into uneasiness, which causes you to be unnatural and awkward. Then this only fuels your Imposter Syndrome.
But, if you learn to trust yourself and your abilities by tackling Imposter Syndrome head-on, you'll be able to relax and focus on the job at hand—rather than obsessing about how others perceive you.
7 Ways Imposter Syndrome Is Holding You Back in Leadership
1. You downplay your accomplishments
When you’re dealing with Imposter Syndrome, you’re probably quick to downplay your successes. When someone congratulates you, your response sounds something like, “Oh thank you, but _____,” and you give the reason why you didn’t actually do a great job and don’t deserve the accolades.
This is a problem because as a leader, others look to you to guide them. Your team members rely on your knowledge, experience, and confidence. If you aren’t able to take credit and be confident in your success, they won’t be either.
2. You avoid new opportunities
You’re afraid to step-up and step-out. Maybe you’re worried you’re not good enough to join that committee because everyone knows way more about the topic than you do. You’re afraid your opinions won’t be accepted, or your fear of failure has stopped you in your tracks.
When you allow impostor thoughts to hinder you as a leader, you allow the fear of putting yourself out there to keep you stuck. Others miss out on your ideas and your leadership because you’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough.
3. You don’t want to ask for help
Sometimes Impostor Syndrome presents as the need for perfectionism—the workaholic who doesn’t stop because everything needs to be done perfectly.
When you’re in this mindset, it’s hard to ask for help when you need it. You think asking for help will tell others you don’t know what you’re doing, or you can’t handle the workload. Your Impostor Syndrome tells you it all needs to be done by you in order to show everyone you can handle it.
This is a dangerous mindset to be in—not asking for help leads to overload, stress, and, ultimately, burnout. The truth is that great leaders need help all the time—they know they can’t do it alone, and they don’t pretend they can.
4. You second-guess your decisions
Imposter Syndrome steals confidence. It sneaks into your mind and allows you to second-guess the decision you felt completely confident in ten minutes prior. It whispers to you that you don’t know what you’re doing, and tells you to be careful because if you make the wrong decision, people are going to judge you and think you have no business being a leader.
Imposter Syndrome makes you afraid to take any action because it might be the wrong one.
5. You hold back
Have you been here?
You’re in a meeting with peers who you see as confident and very smart—smarter than you.
An idea is presented, and you immediately see issues with it, but your intelligent peers love it and it sounds like a go. You want to speak up. Your fingers twitch a little as you prepare to raise your hand. You lift your arm just a little and then the thoughts begin to race through your mind:
“They’re going to think this is a bad idea.”
“What if no one gets what I have to say?”
“They know way more than I do, I should just be quiet.”
And you put your arm back down.
What did your team miss out on by not hearing from you?
6. You fail to start or finish projects
Impostor Syndrome tells you you’re not smart enough or qualified enough to get a project done, so you just never begin.
Or you do begin—and then halfway through, your thoughts tell you the work isn’t good enough and people are going to think it’s terrible. So you quit and deal with the disappointment of an unfinished project rather than deal with the embarrassment you think you’d face when people saw the finished project.
7. You avoid feedback
Hearing feedback can be tough, and if you expect perfection from yourself it can be even harder. To hear about areas for improvement can sound a lot like someone saying, “you’re not good enough” when you suffer from Impostor Syndrome.
When you’re not open to hearing feedback as a leader, you’re closed off to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Your organization suffers, and it can’t reach the next level of success when management isn’t open to change and improvement.
7 Ways To Kick Imposter Syndrome to the Curb
1. Do talk about it—don’t get stuck in it
It’s important to have a community of people you can talk through your thoughts and issues with. It’s perfectly ok to talk with friends and colleagues about your Imposter Syndrome feelings and how they’re impacting you.
Talking only becomes a problem when you commiserate with others about what you’re feeling, and you don’t also discuss what you’re doing to address it. Conversation alone doesn’t solve the issue.
2. Stop thinking like an imposter
Feelings are the last thing to change when it comes to how you manage Imposter Syndrome.
To stop feeling like an imposter, you’ve got to stop thinking like an imposter.
Here’s the great news:
You can change your thoughts – and over time with practice, your new thoughts will be the ones to automatically pop into your mind.
It’s more than just saying to yourself, “You can do this.” You have to recognize impostor thoughts when they pop-up and remind yourself that others feel the same way you do – and that you’re just as smart and deserving as the person sitting next to you.
You also have to focus on hearing feedback and reframing constructive criticism for what it is—feedback, and an opportunity to learn and grow (here's a great podcast ep about this).
We’re not improving when things are going perfectly well. We learn the most when we fail, and we have to be open to failure and learning better ways to do things.
Check out 3 Leadership Principles Every New Leader Needs to Know to learn more about accepting failure as a leader.
3. Remember—it’s not all about you
As leaders, in order to lead, we have to be open and willing to put ourselves out there. We need to be brave enough to raise our hands, throw out ideas that might not be popular, and accept feedback from our team. We have to recognize our own insecurities and then do something about them.
We owe it to our team members, our organizations, and ourselves to recognize our value and stop letting Imposter Syndrome steal our voice and the gifts we have to contribute.
4. Let yourself be vulnerable
The word “vulnerability” is going to make some of you cringe. I get it—and still, as a leader, you’re going to be most successful when you practice it. In fact, the more the word makes you cringe, the more you probably need to practice it.
Brené Brown, best-selling author and research professor, tells us strong leadership is born out of vulnerability. She says,
Being vulnerable takes away Impostor Syndrome because it gives you permission to be imperfect.
Vulnerability opens the door for questions and growth, and it shows your team members you’re transparent and open. It allows you to say, “You know what? I don’t know the answer—let’s talk about it.”
You can learn more about vulnerability and what it means by watching Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability TedTalk.
5. Recognize that it might not go away
For those suffering with Impostor Syndrome, you know the level of harm it can do to your mindset. Keeping impostor thoughts at bay is a constant work in progress. It’ll get easier and more natural with time, and you have to be diligent to do the work and recognize when the thoughts start to creep in.
Michelle Obama has openly discussed her Imposter Syndrome struggles and spoke about it in a 2019 BBC interview:
We’re responsible as leaders to hold ourselves accountable, to recognize Impostor Syndrome in ourselves when we see it, and change the thoughts we have about ourselves.
6. Don’t compare yourself to others
So many people struggle with this under their cool-appearing surface, and while you think they’re all-knowing and confident, inside they’re insecure and looking at you as the confident person.
Rather than thinking about what everyone has accomplished, focus on your own abilities, your own thoughts and progress. Compare yourself to yourself—no one else.
Are you managing your Imposter thoughts when they pop up? Are you getting better at it? Is your confidence improving?
7. Take time to acknowledge your wins
Stop giving credit to external factors when you have a win. It’s OK to give yourself credit, and it’s OK to think you did a good job. Allow yourself to think about the good work you’ve done, and take time to celebrate all the successes, both big and small.
Don’t always look to others for validation and self-worth when it comes to your wins. Sure, it’s nice to be recognized by others, but if you don't receive the positive feedback you were hoping for, it doesn’t mean you didn’t succeed, or your work wasn’t important.
You can recognize yourself and your accomplishments.
Despite what your impostor thoughts might tell you, you are intelligent, deserving, and worthy of being in the presence of everyone else in this world.
Your job is to begin believing this—and help others begin to believe it about themselves, too.
How to Help Team Members Battling Impostor Syndrome
As managers and leaders, it’s our responsibility to manage our own Impostor Syndrome and to be able to recognize and address it in those we lead. An effective way to do this is to normalize it—to be open to talk about it and point it out when you see it.
Here’s an example:
When a team member makes a comment that sounds like Impostor Syndrome, be able to say “Oh, that’s an Impostor thought—some of the most intelligent people in the world have those thoughts, but they’re not reality.”
Also be open to talking about your own Impostor Syndrome and leveraging this conversation by also talking about how you manage it.
There are lots of resources available when it comes to learning more about Impostor Syndrome.
People Managing People's recent podcast, How To Conquer Imposter Syndrome And Lead Boldly Through Your Strengths is a good place to start.
Also check out Dr. Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer. You’ll learn more about how to handle Imposter Syndrome when it shows up in your life or the lives of those you lead.
If you struggle with Impostor Syndrome and aren't sure how to deal with it, seeking a therapeutic intervention like counseling may be the next right step for you.
Discussing the issue with a neutral party can help you take a look at your thought patterns and figure out how to make some changes to improve your overall well-being.
Join Our Community
The People Managing People blog, podcast, and community exists to help you become a better leader of people and catalyst for healthy company culture.
Our community is a space for experienced people managers and culture creators to develop as leaders and connect with other like-minded individuals.
Learn more about the People Managing People community here.
You can also subscribe to the newsletter to get updates when we publish fresh articles and podcasts with the latest thinking in HR from leadership and management experts from around the world.
Or, listen to this podcast for even more insights: How To Conquer Imposter Syndrome And Lead Boldly Through Your Strengths