Do you ever feel secretly inadequate? I don’t mean the confusion of not quite understanding what’s going on in a busy and demanding world. I mean feeling out of your depth, bewildered and doubtful as to whether you can do what is asked of you in your leadership role? Or more accurately, a deep-seated and yet suppressed and secret feeling that really – you’re not up to the job?
I have. My presenting behaviour, my ‘brand’ if you like, is confident, assertive, and assured. I’m sure some people might even turn the volume up on those words and call me over-confident and maybe sometimes even rude. These are behaviours I’ve been working on for years where I try and manage the thin boundary between genuine passion and unfortunate arrogance. However, my internal experience is different. Sometimes I look at the expectations people have of me, and I think ‘I’m just not up to this!’ I don’t feel like this all the time – but when things are tough and my resources are low I can find myself rocked and uncertain.
If sometimes you feel like me – that you might not have what it takes – then we’re not alone. This feeling is called the Imposter Syndrome – and it’s completely normal. During my leadership development and coaching practice I’ve worked closely with numerous managers, leaders and fellow developers. Pretty much every one has at some point said ‘I’m only one page ahead of the others’ or ‘I feel that at any moment I’m going to get found out for the fraud I know myself to be.’
Despite apparent evidence of one’s competence, when the Imposter Syndrome hits you’ll remain convinced that you do not deserve the success you’ve achieved, dismissing this inwardly as luck or fortuitous timing. Psychologists would call it a phenomenon where successful people fail to internalise their accomplishments, unable to believe they are themselves responsible for, or deserving of, the position they’ve achieved.
I’ve met some truly brilliant people who experience this hindering internal pattern. One in particular comes to mind – a bright and brilliant talent who is by everyone’s estimation a deserving young leader full of real promise. By everyone’s estimation that is, other than her own.
Almost every leader I’ve worked with as a coach has expressed this personal doubt. I say almost every leader – there have been a few that were justifiably nervous and rightly aware they were out of their depth – living examples of the Peter Principle where employees in a hierarchy will be successively promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. But these weren’t the worrying ones – they were usually helped to find more fitting employment – sometimes uncomfortably, but normally appropriately and with compassion.
No, the really disappointing leaders were the couple that had no qualms at all of their capability. Is it that they were so ‘complete’ and personally confident that they didn’t need to doubt themselves? Quite the opposite – they were the real imposters who serendipitously found themselves in positions of influence but lacked the humility and insight to work reflexively on their own practice, to seek genuine feedback and take a proper look in the leadership mirror.
So, assuming you’re one of the majority of leaders, of people, who experience (or suffer) the Imposter Syndrome – what can you do? All I can suggest is the same as I have suggested to clients, and the same as I suggest to myself when the feeling hits.
- Believe that it’s normal. Take a look around the office at those you admire, and know they’ll experience this too.
- Ask for feedback. Since the Imposter Syndrome is really a denial of the realities of your own efficacy, seek out others who can give you a more dispassionate view. They’ll probably tell you you’re not perfect – but that you deserve the success you’ve earned.
- Save up positive feedback – and use it when you need it. Be it a patient’s ‘thank you’, a colleague’s ‘well done’, a manager’s recognition or a good appraisal. Some people keep a ‘My plaudits’ file on their computer offering a mine of restorative nuggets to be excavated in times of need.
Oh, and one entreaty. If we assume that most people at some time or other experience this feeling of doubt – let’s help them out. Let’s pass praise around our worlds freely and liberally. I’m not talking about adopting a leadership style of complacent acceptance of poor performance – quite the opposite – I’m all for challenging (fairly, compassionately and very directly) those that truly aren’t up to the job. The majority of colleagues though are talented yet self-doubting people doing the best they can. An encouraging word and a positive stroke could be just the reinforcement they need to keep their imposter at bay.