The impostor syndrome (also called impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome and the impostor experience) is getting a lot of attention, but it’s not new. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined “impostor phenomenon” in research they published in 1978. In the more than 40 years since, it’s become an epidemic, affecting at least 70% of business leaders and managers, and its negative effect on our professional and personal lives is profound.
So what exactly is it?
"Impostor syndrome is the voice in your head that overlooks, discounts and discredits your accomplishments," says Jerry Colonna, a coach and the author of Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up.
If you’ve ever felt like you didn’t belong, like everyone around you knew more than you, and that it was only a matter of time before you screwed up enough that everyone would know you were more “fake it” than “make it,” you’ve experienced impostor syndrome.
Although Dr. Clance’s 1978 research focused on women, men suffer from it too. Women are of course more used to having their opinions and credentials questioned, but men aren’t immune to self-doubt.
Years ago, after a losing a job that I loved due to a toxic manager and then a disagreement with a business partner I decided to start my own company; to take my career and livelihood into my own hands. I knew I wanted the word “creative” in the name -- but what else? I was reading The Tipping Point and when I reached Chapter Two, The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, there it was. Maven.
The word captured me. I thought, "I don't know what that means but it’s the sexiest word I've ever seen." It’s Yiddish and means "expert" - usually self-proclaimed. I had to laugh about that “self-proclaimed” because as a theatre major and newly turned technology marketer, I continually battled my own imposter syndrome, feeling like I never knew enough, and that “maven” was an exaggeration. Nevertheless, I filed that incorporation paperwork and here she stands Creative Maven® Inc. lucky thirteen years later.
It is amazing that there are now studies around this topic, this one is comprehensive and I recommend this book on the subject.
Clare Josa is the author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome & Dare To Dream Bigger. She’s currently processing the results of her 2019 Impostor Syndrome Study, which has already delivered some interesting unofficial early data:
Of those in senior positions who said they “never” get impostor Syndrome, 100 percent showed clear signs of it, both in their self-talk and their actions.
Of those respondents who said they didn’t know what impostor syndrome is, 75 percent showed clear signs of it — and that figure rose to 100 percent for those employed in senior roles.
Impostor syndrome isn’t just a personal problem; it also has massive impact on business. Josa runs training sessions to address it saying, “My big message was about how we need to open up the conversation on this, so that talking about ‘feeling like a fraud’ becomes as acceptable as asking for, say, time management training.”
How does impostor syndrome translate into business loss?
Josa is already seeing a clear trend that senior women who quit one job to get a new promotion-level role and pay raise with another company often did so because they didn’t feel they could ask for that with their previous employer — due to impostor syndrome. Other findings reveal “A shocking 55 percent of senior business leaders have not asked for a pay raise they knew they deserved or gone for a promotion they knew they were capable of, due to impostor syndrome. This will have a measurable effect on leadership development, business performance and the gender pay gap.”
Her research identifies specific subgroups within the impostor syndrome. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, she discusses the following types of imposter syndrome:
The Perfectionist - They have such high expectations for themselves that even small mistakes will make them feel like a failure.
The Superwoman/Superman - They put in longer hours, never take days off and must succeed in all aspects of life in order to prove they are the “real deal.”
The Natural Genius - They are used to things coming easily, so when something is too hard or they don’t master it on the first try, they feel shame and self-doubt.
The Soloist - They don’t like to ask for help, so when they do, they feel like a failure or a fraud.
The Expert - They continuously seek out additional certifications or training because they feel as though they will never know enough to be truly qualified.
Is this you? Many of us are a combination of at least two of these. I’m pretty sure you can tell which ones I am…. my cape is currently at the dry cleaners.
According to Dr. Young, “The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.” I completely agree.
Ok, so now what?
Besides Dr. Young’s Ten Steps, here are a few suggestions from me:
Be completely honest.
This means with yourself first and then with others. At work, be brave enough to admit you don’t understand something or ask someone for help. At home, don’t cover up a small mistake with a big excuse. If you were wrong about something, suck it up and admit it. And the two words “I’m sorry” are unbelievably powerful. Or maybe think about empathy before you let someone hurt your feelings. You may be misinterpreting the situation.
Don’t expect everything from yourself all at once.
Dr. Young touches on this with “natural genius,” but it bears repeating. People who are good at a lot of things often get frustrated when they encounter resistance. Don’t think you’re a phony or a failure because it takes more than a minute to master something new.
Asking questions doesn’t make you vulnerable or weak.
We are all afraid to look like a dummy if we ask “the stupid question,” but there are no stupid questions. When I defeat my inner impostor and drum up the nerve to ask for clarification on something, the person I ask is usually happy to help (and glad I asked).
The first step is getting impostor syndrome out in the open. Knowing we all suffer from it is essential to taking away its power. As Jeanne Croteau tweeted, “You’re not an impostor. You’re an original.”
Be an original.