Do you feel like an impostor at work? Perhaps your new role has you feeling inauthentic, and you dread that you may be caught out at any time? Find your groove by harnessing the impostor within.
(This blog post originally appeared as an article I wrote for AFR.com, “Why it’s good to feel like a fraud at work” 20 Apr 2015)
‘Authenticity’ is definitely a candidate for buzzword du jour. With being authentic under the spotlight, some of you, on occasion, may feel that you’re very much the opposite. You may feel like you’re faking it above the surface where everyone can see, while flailing about beneath, well out of your depth. Perhaps the next crisis will be the one that finds you out, bringing an end to your masquerade?
Rather than being a fake, it’s more likely that this feeling has arisen because you are being true to yourself and indeed authentic. This feeling has a name – Impostor Syndrome.
YOU’RE IN GOOD COMPANY
Impostor Syndrome was first coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It refers to ongoing feelings of inadequacy that refuse to go away even if all evidence suggests that the opposite is true and is associated with high-achieving and often highly successful individuals. Although initially applied to high achieving women, it has also been found to be applicable to men. Even Albert Einstein once pronounced “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease – I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Other notable people who have revealed their own impostor doubts include Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Puppet Labs chief executive Luke Kanies, Care.com chief executive Sheila Marcelo and actors Don Cheadle, Mike Myers, Emma Watson and Meryl Streep.
AUTHENTICITY FRICTION IS A GOOD THING
In more recent research, INSEAD’s Professor Herminia Ibarra has looked at high-achievers and found that acute feelings of faking it can actually be a sign of growth. Why? Because, in doing something new or challenging, we are getting out of established patterns and comfort zones … and feeling like impostors as we try new things. This feeling is a sign of positive change and growth, though it can “trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities”. In other words, retreating back to familiar comfort zones to alleviate this sensitivity, and thereby denying the chance to realise the potential that lurks in the unfamiliar beyond.
FIVE STEPS FOR MANAGING THE FAKER FEELING
So, feeling like an impostor can be associated with the development of a better and improved you. How can you ease some of the associated discomfort, and help the inner – and authentic – impostor to flourish? Here are five ideas to get you started.
- Adopt a less rigid, more playful mindset
Cisco founder Sandy Lerner once said the “the first rule of a game is to know you’re in one.” Ibarra argues strongly for experimentation as we try to figure out what is the best way to respond to new challenges and circumstances. This requires a more playful and less rigid frame of mind, where we treat things more like a new game, and we do permit ourselves the odd mistake or two.
- Get ready for negative feedback
Trying new things will inevitably lead to some mistakes and potentially negative feedback … something that may be hard to process for high-achievers who have become accustomed to delivering ‘100 per cent perfect, every time’. Remember, you’re learning and these are virtuous mistakes. Start rolling with and welcoming these punches. It’s a new game.
- Talk about it with trusted colleagues and mentors
Going it alone can worsen you impostor feelings. Though this does not mean you should become an open book to all around you. Be selective, reconnect with mentors or close colleagues who know you and your achievements well, and can provide a good stabilising sounding board.
- Coaching to help with goals that stretch you
It may be useful to get some outside expertise. Obtaining some coaching help is particularly useful in identifying, setting and monitoring your progress against goals that stretch you in the right direction. As you increase your experimentation, and get into some unfamiliar terrain, the review of your progress through coaching dialogue can enhance the insights you experience along the way.
- Remember that you’re not alone
Fears about being an imposter tend to occur in a vacuum… “it’s me, me, me… and I’m so fake”. Recognise that others have ‘interiors’ too, and many of them will be hearing the same inner chatter. Authentic people experience impostor pangs. Go easier on yourself, and process these feelings positively and constructively… then see where your ‘authentic impostor’ takes you.
© Tom Loncar Executive Coaching 2015