Imagine one of these scenarios: you’ve recently returned to work after a career break and feel a little unsure about yourself or; you’ve recently been promoted to the lofty heights of an executive position and you’re trying to find your feet or; much to your surprise, you’ve secured a senior role in an entirely new organisation and you have the feeling that people are doubting your capability. In truth you feel like a fraud.

Three different scenarios that, in our experience, can all be associated with one common phenomenon called: Imposter Syndrome – the feeling of being found out; the feeling of not being up to the job; the feeling that someone will tap you on the shoulder sometime soon and accuse you of being the great pretender. Notice the use of the word ‘feeling’. In other words, Imposter Syndrome is at odds with the reality of your burgeoning knowledge, abundant experience and broad skill set. Not to mention all the hard graft that enabled you to secure this new role or return to work after taking a career break to care for an elderly relative or start a family or re-find your raison d’être.

Guardian columnist, Oliver Burkeman writes that Imposter Syndrome is ‘a classic case of comparing your insides with other people’s outsides: you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it’s more justified than anyone else’s.’ In other words you might be inclined to compare your inner turmoil with the surface smiles of those around you. Hardly a like for like comparison.

Burkeman goes on to say that ‘one of impostorism’s frustrating ironies . . . ‘is that true frauds and idiots rarely seem to experience it. (“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt,” said Bertrand Russell, the late philosopher and political activist.)’

Writing in Forbes, Maggie Warrell reveals that ‘Liz Bingham, managing partner of Ernst & Young, once thought to herself: “What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out.”‘

Coincidentally we happen to know Liz Bingham very well and have collaborated with her at a number of events. Liz is a wonderful example of a leader who has obviously prevailed in the face of Imposter Syndrome.

Warrell goes on to remind us that fear of failure is a facet of everyday life but what really undermines us is when we allow palpable fear to paralyse our actions; to stop us from getting started. If this is how you are feeling at the moment then you may want to take inspiration from the title of Susan Jeffers’ book, ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.’

There’s no shortage of advice on how to overcome Imposter Syndrome but here are a few that I think are useful:

• You didn’t reach this role by roulette. Remind yourself of the skills, knowledge and experience that brought you here and keep adding value.

• Stop comparing yourself to others. (Warrell describes this as ‘. . . an act of violence against oneself.’)

• Remember that nobody belongs in the organisation more than you.

• Perhaps there is a fine line been authenticity and pretence. French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote that “There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others.”

• Stick to your personal vision and aspirations. (In Warrell’s words, ‘refuse to let your doubts dictate your choices.’)

• There is probably wisdom in the phrase, ‘Fake it ‘til you make it.’

Throughout the calendar year we host a number of round-table events across the UK with a variety of leaders from the finance and professional services sectors. We essentially create a confidential safe space where these leaders are able to openly share common challenges and aspirations. We often find that one of the most valuable outputs from these sessions for participants is the realisation – for the first time – that they are not alone in how they feel about the issues they are facing. Hearing others talking openly and honestly provides the confidence and reassurance that comes from mapping shared feelings against common experiences.

Imposterism is a figment of our imagination that is given form and substance by our thoughts and feelings resulting in behaviours that might hold us back from being ourselves. Putting our feelings into perspective as well as sharing common feelings and experiences with others is therefore crucial if we are to expose and evict the imposter that lurks in our shadow.

Don’t allow fraudulent feelings to foreclose your future.

Author: Thomas Chalmers

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