Leadership and Imposter Syndrome–You’re In Good Company

“Sometimes I just feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. If people knew what goes on inside my head, they would be shocked at how much I’m just making up as I go along, and how little I really know about how to be successful in my job.”

Sound familiar?

It may surprise you to learn that leaders at every level of organizations have these feelings. I know because they tell me. They may not broadcast these internal doubts with their organizations, but they are extremely common.

If anything, as leaders grow and take on larger roles, they face problems that are more intractable and complex. It should be no surprise that they question whether they are up to the task.

Here are some strategies that can help:

Know that you are in good company. Imposter syndrome is one of the more common topics I speak with leaders about–it’s so common! In fact one of the most senior leaders I’ve ever coached, when asked what she wanted to be different in six months, her answer was, “I want to feel confident that I know what I’m doing.” Some of the most extraordinary senior leaders I work with have imposter syndrome.

Talk about it. By talking about your feelings, you let off steam, feel better, and build stronger ties with those you confide in. You may even inspire others. This can include sharing with trusted peers or a manager. It can be powerful to share with select people more junior than you. Often these earlier career folks respond with, “Not you! You are so confident!” and an instant bond is formed. Just be selective.

Use positive self-talk. We all have an ongoing narrative in our own heads. But what do we say to ourselves? Many people don’t realize that you can proactively shape that conversation. The key is to observe your thoughts, and when you catch your inner critic speaking up, just pause, and choose something else to say instead. Talk to yourself like you would a dear friend or family member.

Build your confidence. Imposter syndrome often shows up as feelings of low confidence. But there are loads of proactive ways that you can build your confidence. This includes things like understanding and using your strengths more, examining what has made you feel confident in the past, or using visualization or affirmations. See our blogs: How to Develop Confidence From Within, and Increasing Confidence From the Outside In.

Stop caring–but in a good way. At the heart of it, some people’s anxiety and drive for perfection stems from a fear of rejection. “If I really mess up, I’ll get fired!” I’ve noticed that people who are less worried about losing their job seem to rise up into more confident, higher levels of performance. Talk yourself out of that fear: what’s the worst thing that could happen if you were fired? You’d go get another job.

Try positive psychology techniques. A general boost in mood can go a long way to helping dig you out of the low feelings of imposter syndrome. Here are some great approaches:

  • Savoring. Spend more time relishing enjoyable moments. Pause to take in the warm, delicious feeling of the sun on your face. Or focus on the pleasure of meeting with a colleague you like. The key is to get into the good feelings and try to prolong them.
  • Gratitude. Gratitude has been well studied, and its effects on well-being are significant. It involves focusing on or talking about the good things in your life. We all have an infinite number of things we can focus our attention on–tilt the scales towards the positive ones. For more on gratitude, see the Harvard Health Publishing’s In Praise of Gratitude or UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s Three Good Things practice.
  • Optimism. A close cousin to gratitude, optimism is the mental act of anticipating that good things will happen or looking at the positive side of what is happening already.

As one of my mentors recently pointed out to me (yes, I am among the ranks of people with imposter syndrome!), there are also some real advantages to being someone who questions their own abilities. It drives you to higher levels of performance. You aren’t sitting there thinking, “Well, I guess I can stop growing now.” Whatever the source, imposter syndrome can be a fuel for growth and achievement. The key is knowing you aren’t alone and not letting it make you miserable.