Think of the contrast between the all-powerful Wizard of Oz and the man behind the curtain.
At some point in people’s careers, most worry that they’re the weak person controlling the levers instead of the formidable wizard.
Known as imposter syndrome, 70% of individuals feel that others overestimate their capabilities at some point during their work lives. Countless public examples exist. The 41st US president fretted that history views his legacy as an “empty deck of cards.”
In the 1800s, legendary composer Brahms boldly wrote in a letter to a friend, “I shall never write a symphony! You can’t have any idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you.” This giant was Beethoven, with his legendary shadow hovering over the composer, fueling his fear of not measuring up. It ultimately took 20 years for Brahms to write his first symphony and share it with the public in 1876.
Among a long list of others, Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou have talked about feelings of imposter syndrome, too.
Recent research shows that imposter syndrome looks a lot like fear, and it’s most likely to strike people who are tackling a new role or challenge. Succession candidates, high-potentials, and next leaders, chosen for their track record of contributor-level success, are suddenly in positions that inevitably lead to winning less. While there can be benefits to imposter syndrome, from our experience, unchecked and uncoached imposter syndrome can snowball and impact performance.
Through our coaching experience, we’ve learned three things to do (and one NOT to do) to get results regardless of how “impostery” you feel.
DO Reframe the Feeling
The all-eyes-on-me feeling that fuels the imposter syndrome can be a good thing. Research shows that those who are feeling like an imposter are more in tune with others’ emotions and, in turn, respond in more emotionally intelligent ways. Recognizing that you can use the feeling for good can keep the negative impact of the emotion at bay.
DO Recognize You’re Not Alone
If you feel like an imposter, you’re in good company. Given the stat mentioned above, it’s almost inevitable that you feel like you’re faking it at some point in your history. Believing that it is a common experience—rather than assuming everyone else is uber-confident—can help you in those crucial fearful moments.
DO Root Cause It
When imposter syndrome is more than just a passing feeling, it’s time to do the hard work. Dig into what might be driving the emotion. After a successful run in a different role, are you taking on new responsibilities? Have you been promoted? Are you stepping up in a new way? These situations (and more) tend to be imposter triggers.
DON’T Ignore It
If you choose not to engage it, you’ll likely find yourself in what is known as the Pink Elephant Paradox, which is the idea that trying not to think about something only makes it harder to ignore. What follows are wasted energy, rumination, and poor decisions. Addressing it head-on allows you to overcome the feeling and be more productive.
If you’re looking to go deeper, feel free to reach out to me or any of my elite colleagues. We’re always interested in discussing how to help you become a more effective leader.