Are you a big phoney? ... Imposter syndrome is the term given to the feeling experienced by many professionals who ooze confidence but secretly feel like a fraud.
There is no doubt that confidence is a killer asset in the workplace. But for many professionals, the facade of self-assurance is only a mask they wear.
“I come across as a confident young person and it would come as a surprise to most that I don’t have confidence in myself,” says Matilda Raynolds, champion triathlete and marketing and communications manager for the rural peak body NSW Farmers Association.
“But often its like ‘I can’t believe that I’ve bluffed my whole way through this’.”
Imposter syndrome is the term given to the feeling experienced by some professionals who ooze confidence but secretly feel like a fraud and are waiting to be “found out”.
“I think just about everyone deals with it to some degree, some more than others, women more than men,” says accountant and organisational coach Barbara Heilemann. “For some people, it’s constantly questioning the decisions they make and in other people it can (manifest) in being physically unwell, stressed, maybe even depression, but certainly always stress.”
Questioning oneself and having a degree of self-doubt can be healthy.
Communications and media consultant Andrew Buchanan advises all clients that they should have the stomach wobbles before they give a talk, “otherwise it shows that you’re complacent and not ready to do your best”.
Heilemann agrees. She says that good managers and leaders need to question themselves from time to time to maintain both a sense of perspective and self- awareness.
“But its when they start saying ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘Someone’s going to find me out’ or ‘They’re going to know that I can’t do this’ is when it can turn into a problem,” she says.
Imposter syndrome can become a problem when professionals turn down opportunities that they may be qualified for or when a lack of confidence causes them to stand back and allow themselves to be overlooked when a promotion comes up.
There can be a real risk for employees who don’t seize the limelight enough.
In a Korn/Ferry report on identifiying future chief executives, Tim Stevenson, the chairman of two companies in Britain – the builders’ merchant Travis Perkins and the material supplier Morgan Crucible – says that “it is always quite easy to miss out. Potential leaders who hide or are shyer can be overlooked.”
A survey of managers conducted by the British Institute of Leadership and Management found more than 50 per cent of women admitted feeling self-doubt compared with just 31 per cent of the men. Female respondents were also more reticent about seeking promotions.
Raynolds most recently suffered serious self-doubt when switching from the role of strategic relationships manager at compression sportwear maker Skins to her role at NSW Farmers.
“That was when I’ve been most anxious,” Raynolds says. “Its that general anxiety that comes from [the thought that] the more people you get on side, the more people you feel there are to let down,” she says.
Signing up with a new triathlon sponsor can bring on the same emotions.
“There are sleepless nights, feeling sick and that whole feeling that you’re forgetting to breathe . . . and pressure headaches,” she says.
Raynolds says that imposter syndrome has never caused her to turn down an opportunity but it can cause her to “freak out” after she’s committed to something. During a crisis, she says talking to a colleague or mentor is the best thing to do.
But at work, she is careful how she structures the conversation. “I’ve been open and said, ‘This is how I’m feeling’ but I make sure that I’m not telling the boss I can’t do it.’”
Heilemann also believes that talking it out can help but she is adamant that when it comes to dealing with imposter syndrome, mentors should come from outside the office.
“I don’t know why you would want to show your vulnerability in that environment,” she says.
The most effective way to deal with imposter syndrome, Heilemann says, is to focus on the positive.
“Focus on what you’re good at, do more of it and continue to use those strengths in all areas of your life,” she says.
An example of using strengths in all areas of life is when competent communicators in the professional environment volunteer to take up a communications role at their local sports club as well.
“When you’re doing more of what it is that you’re good at and focusing on where you are thriving, your deficits fall away,” she says.
Heilemann advises people to be realistic about their strengths and weaknesses.
“There are some things where you realise that you will become proficient but never an expert.”