Are You An Impostor At The Top?

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."

Bertrand Russell

Do you feel worthy of your position within your organization or do you feel like a fraud?

Do you feel confident in your status or do you feel that someone is going to tap on your shoulder and tell you that the gig is up and you have been found out?

If at times you have self-doubt about your worthiness to occupy your role, then you are not alone.  You are likely suffering from what is termed, the impostor syndrome.

The impostor syndrome was first articulated in modern scientific literature in 1978 by two clinical psychologists Drs. Pauline Clance andSuzanne Imes. It perhaps is no coincidence that the syndrome was articulated by two women as the assumption is the syndrome is more common amongst females, though the reality is it’s equally prevalent amongst men. Even though the syndrome was articulated almost 40 years ago it's highly likely that some version of the concept has been around for eons.

In my practice, I see the syndrome quite regularly amongst senior executives, especially those who have just assumed a new high-level position. I have seen both men and women with the issue and at all senior positions, even Chief Executives.

David is a delightful and smart man who has recently been made Senior vice President of North American Operations for a multinational corporation. David is well-liked, well qualified (an MBA from one of the most prestigious business schools), very experienced and has all the requisite skills for the senior promotion. But he just doesn't feel worthy of the new role and feels anxious inside.  Though almost everyone thinks he is a great fit for the job. It's all in his head.

In David's case, I believe his feelings of being a fraud stem from his humble origins. Raised in a family where education and money were limited, getting a degree and a decent professional job were probably the extent of his ambitions. Despite being very successful, he still somewhat measures his level by the family standards. His father and all of his siblings have semi-skilled trade jobs, while he earns high six figures a year.  The mismatch must be explained somehow and David's narrative is that he has overachieved and that other people could do just as good as job, if not better, than he can.  He is actually very sensitive to his affluent life relative to his other family members and tends to play it down when he’s around them.

David was using his close family and past as his reference point, not his current and potential future.

With David there were outward signs of his anxious impostor feelings.  He started to lose some of what his firm likes to call ‘his executive impact’ in leadership team meetings.  My experience informs me that for many executives when they start to experience the impostor syndrome their confidence tends to wane and this in-turn impacts their communication skills, their gravitas. 

It's the feeling of being undeserving that defines the impostor syndrome. In David's case just talking through his expectations and exploring his self-belief were enough for him to realise that he was deserving and had no need to feel like an impostor.

There has been some work on the opposite of the impostor syndrome. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University studied situations in which people had an inflated sense of their own skills and competence.  A huge over confidence. They suggest that inflated views of performance are based on misperceptions of the self, which lead to an exaggerated belief in their own skills and abilities.  Whereas, someone with the impostor syndrome has a misperception about their skills and abilities relative to others.

So it's likely that people who overestimate their abilities are the real frauds; failing to acknowledge their failings and they wouldn't see themselves as impostors. As a result, it's tempting to conclude that those suffering from the impostor syndrome aren't impostors at all. In fact, their sensitivity, and perhaps the minimising of their talents, makes them the last people to be real frauds.

I have known some senior executives who have the syndrome to use their feelings of unworthiness to motivate them to resolve assumed weaknesses. I was recently working with a female leader in her mid-forties who had just been promoted to a senior leadership position within a multinational corporation. As she reflected on the rapid promotions she had achieved in the last five years, she mentioned that she’d had doubt about her worthiness after each promotion to a more challenging role. However, instead of ruminating on being found out, she used the feelings to motivate herself to achieve in her new role.  As she put it, she gave herself permission to succeed.

The common experience of the impostor syndrome amongst newly promoted executives suggests that there might be value in addressing the syndrome with those about to be promoted into senior positions.  I have certainly done some of this preventive work. Discussing the demands and expectations of the role in the context of the person's qualities and skills can provide inner confidence that their promotion is justified. This allows the newly promoted to step into the role with ease.

So if you feel like an impostor, it’s okay to ask for help.  Perhaps start the process of giving yourself permission to own your new role by talking through your feelings with someone you know and trust.

References:

Clance, P.R.; Imes, S.A. (1978). "The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention." Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15 (3): 241–247

Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34