How to beat the imposter syndrome

A remarkable number of people will admit (quietly) to the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. Capable, successful professionals with a niggling suspicion they’re a fraud: it’s just a matter of time before they’re found and the limits of their knowledge, expertise, and skills is revealed!

Thankfully, practically all of these people just carry on and continue to do their jobs well. But I suspect there is a cost, both to them and to their organizations.

A simple way to look at the topic is to consider how feeling and acting confident interact to give us four basic types.



If you don’t feel confident and don’t act confident you’re easily recognized as what I affectionately call a „genuine mess“: you might not know what you’re doing but you’re at least sincere about it. And that was pretty true about me when I started my first office job. The genuine messes are typically new at something and have no reason to cover up their inexperience.

If you’re feeling confident but act like you’re not, something’s up – the game you’re playing may not be a malicious or manipulative one, but you’re using this outward show of self-doubt to achieve something. A nice example is when a manager pretends they’re unsure of the right next step to allow a team member to further develop an idea or advocate for a course of action.

The real deal has it all with confidence in feelings, thoughts and actions. This is a very productive quadrant: people make decisions, move things along and speak up. Organizations should work to get as many of their employees into this quadrant as they can. And as individuals, we should strive to be in this quadrant for as much of the time as we can.

Which is why being in the imposter corner is a problem. Acting confident may ensure you get your work done and that others hold you in high regard, but feeling fraudulent will waste your emotional and psychological energy. And it may affect your decision-making and judgment. Think about it, how could insecurity not influence how you evaluate options or others?

This insecurity may also hold you back from going for a promotion or challenging role, confounding your colleagues who do see you as capable enough. Organizationally, you don’t want your talent underselling themselves if you want to get the best out of them.

If you do find yourself slipping into the imposter quadrant more than you like you can take steps to move out. Some situations may allow you to drop some of the act: you can acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers or all the facts, you can say you need more information, time or whatever it is you need to build up your knowledge or skills so that you feel you have the right level for the task at hand. Paradoxically, voicing your needs will often make you feel more confident.

But many situations, especially as you move up the corporate ranks, don’t really allow for less confidence in your behavior. In that case, you need to adjust how confident you feel. Here are some things you might want to try or consider:

  • Recognize that everyone has something of the fraud in them, no-one has all the right skills, experience and knowledge to make them the perfect person for their role. There is no perfect.

  • Ask yourself how you got to where you are. Was it all just luck? Did it require some talent or some display of competencies on your part? What part of this did you control and what part just happened to you? Highlight for yourself what you controlled and were responsible for.

And my favorite:

  • Write down your strengths and weaknesses as if you were evaluating a co-worker you like.

This switch in perspective might be all you need to turn off the overly harsh inner critic and get a more balanced view of your capabilities. Maybe you’ll even find that you are the real deal!

(Originally posted on LinkedIn July 24, 2014)