Impostor Syndrome - Part 1 - Proteus Leadership
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Impostor Syndrome – Part 1

How To Transform Our Impostor Syndrome Moments - By Richard Dore

Impostor Syndrome – Part 1

The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me!

Tina Fey – US actress, comedian, writer, producer, and playwright

The Imposter Syndrome was originally coined the ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ in 1978, and it is loosely defined as doubting your abilities, feeling like a phoney or a dread of being exposed as a fraud.

Imposter syndrome can also be a feeling that you do not deserve your current success, position, or good luck, where you may doubt your skills, talents, or accomplishments despite external evidence to the contrary.

Given how crippling Imposter Syndrome can be on our sense of integrity and self-worth and because no-one wants to feel like a fraud or being in a state of despair, I believe it is critical that we open up this conversation, expose the reality of this phenomenon and look for ways to transform these deeply unpleasant moments into opportunities for positive growth.

In this two-part article, I will firstly decode the common phenomena of the Imposter Syndrome and share with you how we have the potential to transform these moments with a growth mindset.

Then in part two (in the next Proteuslife edition), I will share with you one of my big Imposter Syndrome Moments with an important work-based project and look at how we can flip our thinking by using a 4-Step process to redesign our work for proactive progress.

The Prevalence Of Imposter Syndrome

Research is indicating that 70% of us will experience some form of Imposter Syndrome in our lives and in my personal experience working with our clients across all industries, it is especially common after a promotion, a change in job roles or when dealing with a toxic boss, colleague, or culture. It can also happen when working on a complex project or when facing new challenges and high levels of uncertainty.

In my 25 plus years of facilitating leadership programs, leading people, and coaching, it is rare that people would say that they permanently suffer from Imposter Syndrome but what is remarkable is how common it is for people to have what I call Imposter Syndrome Moments (ISM), I believe it is rare for leaders not to have had an ISM and in all likelihood will experience future ISM.

Imposter Syndrome Moments

Whether I am personally having an ISM or coaching a client or team member about their ISM, there is always some good news to these seemingly unpleasant experiences.  In fact, these ISM can teach us valuable life lessons and can be the birthplace of growth, innovation, creating a positive guide to move us forward, especially if we acknowledge and then embrace the following three concepts:

1. You’re Not Alone

We firstly need to acknowledge that we are not alone. Everyone will feel like an imposter at some time.

Most people (and especially successful people) will experience some form of impostor syndrome in their careers and over their lives, regardless of gender, privilege, or background.  From my investigations there is no evidence that it is more prevalent in women (which is a common myth), however when I am coaching clients, it is the female leaders who are quicker to share their vulnerability and acknowledge they are having ISM!

2. Don’t Let ISM Define You

Secondly, ISM should not define us.

We need to remind ourselves that this will be transitory, but only if we are prepared to sit in the discomfort of these ISM and then to do the work to gain insights and take proactive action to change the dynamics of that situation. That’s when ISM can be genuinely transformational.

3. Go For A Growth Mindset 

Thirdly, if you have adopted a ‘growth mindset’ for life, you can always flip your thinking to acknowledge that a certain ‘healthy’ amount of imposter syndrome is actually a good thing because it is telling us something important that needs our attention and a particular area of development that we need to work on for growth.   

The Power Of A Growth Mindset

Adam Grant who is an organisational psychologist and bestselling author states, ‘that the highest form of self-confidence is believing in your ability to learn.’ He also has a great take on flipping your thinking with Impostor Syndrome:

Impostor Syndrome: “I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s only a matter of time until everyone finds out.”

Growth Mindset: “I don’t know what I’m doing yet. It’s only a matter of time until I figure it out.”

Even when we adopt a growth mindset it is still unpleasant because we are in a state of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing yet’.  So, the key to transforming this is on the one hand, not to suppress or ignore these feelings, and on the other hand we do not overindulge or get overwhelmed by ISM. That is why a growth mindset is so important (you will get there) and what we want is to go for the Goldilocks zone!  This is the ‘habitable zone’ or the growth place we want to explore, develop, and play in to assist us in reaching our purpose and potential.

The Goldilocks Zone

Too Little

Never experiencing ISM, is where we have no concerns or self-awareness into our potential lack of abilities, or we are never stepping outside our comfort zone. From a development perspective this is called being ‘unconsciously incompetent’! This lack of insight may result in us being delusional about our overall competence or current skill level, which can leave us appearing either arrogant or ignorant. Both ugly options and very bad for our leadership credibility.

Too Much

Experiencing too much impostor syndrome too is often crippling, damages any long-term progress for future growth and will end in despair.  Being constantly overwhelmed by feelings of being exposed as a fraud is exhausting and stops us from becoming a genuine ‘servant’ leader, because we are so focussed on ourselves rather than serving others. 

Just Right

Having the ‘just right’ amount of ISM is about having insight and proactively looking for any ‘unconscious incompetent’ areas that we may need to work on, so as not to be irrelevant. Couple this with a desire for continual growth, where we want to stretch our albitites to become a better and more authentic version of ourselves.

First-Time Moments (Just Right for Growth)

Stop and think about all those first-time moments in our careers where we often feel inadequate and out of our depth…

Leading a team, dealing with a toxic person, being promoted to an executive role, selling, presenting a conference keynote, coaching a team member, leading a critical project, pitching for more resources, etc.

We could just try and ‘fake it until we make it’, ignore these feeling at our peril, or become overwhelmed and freeze.  Alternatively, we can acknowledge that we are currently out of our depth and that’s OK, because we are in the Goldilocks Zone – just right for future growth.

Then we need to get to work and utilise these moments to transform. Such as:

Get a coach, read a leadership book, watch a TED talk, book yourself into a workshop or a leadership program, ask a trusted mentor for some advice, etc.

All Growth Is outside Our Comfort Zone

When we live with a ‘growth mindset’ and strive to operate in the ‘growth zone’ it is natural to question oneself, to be bedevilled with some self-doubt and to question our current lack of abilities. Why?  Because going for growth is always on the edge of, or outside of our current ‘comfort zone,’ and we are usually making it up as we go!

The trick is to acknowledge these feelings of self-doubt, but do not let that spiral into feelings of being an inauthentic phoney, or feeling ‘underserving’ as a person. Basically, be comfortable being uncomfortable! Then be vulnerable enough to seek support and guidance to help transform your current situation.

I am a massive fan of Brené Brown’s work and I love her take on vulnerability and why we need to show up and get into the area:

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.

In my experience, the only people who don’t experience imposter syndrome are people who are currently ‘unconsciously incompetent’ and of course people who are completely lacking insight, or the narcissists and psychopaths of this world!

Imposter Syndrome Moments Will Continue To Happen

I am constantly reminding myself, my team, and the clients that I coach, to work on having a growth mindset, be vulnerable and to continue to step outside of our comfort zones, because that is where growth happens. But here’s the kicker and the extra challenge. Uncertainty is now the new normal. So, the amount of ISM will only increase as we navigate disruption and challenges, especially while we attempt to develop ourselves to remain relevant for the future.

Being in that growth zone where you are ‘consciously incompetent’ is not pleasant, but it is where development happens. So, imagine a world where we open up the conversation to how common these feelings of Imposter Syndrome are and how we can collectively and proactively look for ways to transform these deeply unpleasant moments into learning opportunities, for transformation and positive growth.

Imagine what would happen if we re-framed and flipped these feeling of inadequacy, of being ‘caught out’ and ‘frozen with fear’ whenever we have an ISM and we learnt to sit with that momentary discomfort.

It will totally change the game because we can leverage that emotional force to transform our current situation with a call to action into a better future outcome and a better version of ourselves and our workplaces. 

I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out’. – Maya Angelou US writer, poet, and civil rights activist

* Look out for Part 2 in the next Proteuslife edition, where I will share with you one of my big Imposter Syndrome Moments and the 4-Step process to redesign our work with proactive progress.

Richard Dore


Proteus Leadership