Tag Archives: emotional dysfunction

The imposter syndrome: An affliction that can sabotage a great leader’s success

One of the most common ailments of psychology that abounds in senior managers and leaders is something that is referred to as the imposter syndrome.  For those of you who don’t know what it is I am talking about let me give you an example.  Peter, is an amalgam of many of my previous clients, so I can protect both their confidentiality and anonymity.

Peter is a senior manager in large organisation and is one step short from being a VP in his organisation.  Peter was referred to coaching just like many other executives in his organisation, not because there was anything wrong with him or that there was anything that needed to be remedied, but mainly because the organisation found great value in coaching their senior staff to help prepare them for their new role and responsibilities.  After about three sessions Peter began to open up to me about some of the anxieties that he was feeling from having attained such lofty heights in the organisation.  He described to me what it was like to be always looking over his shoulder wondering when someone would come up to him and say “sorry – we got it wrong, we made a mistake.  You aren’t really all that good after all.”  He felt like he was wearing a mask at work, keeping up the pretence and façade of someone acting as a leader. This unconscious fear was something that was eating away at Peter and was starting to have more of an effect in his life outside of work.  He was spending more time in the office or entertaining clients and stakeholders and was becoming more aware of a gulf that was widening between him and his partner.  As he confided in me “it’s like being this other person and sometimes I don’t know who it is I really am anymore.  I’m afraid of letting people down who have placed their trust in me.”  Peter’s way of dealing with this was to create more of persona around his work identity as a means to try and convince others and himself that he was worthy of his position.  More worryingly was what Peter confided in me was that he had noticed that he had started to procrastinate in his work and tendencies of perfectionism were starting to emerge.  Fortunately, nobody had noticed, but Peter had and these new behaviours were a growing concern for him.

Peter’s experience is very common in organisational life as some executives feel that the life they are leading is somewhat illusory.  They are troubled and anxious about the fact that they may have fooled people into believing they are better than they are.  As they search inside themselves this anxiety deepens as they struggle to come to terms with their beliefs about themselves and their abilities.  They rationalise that other factors such as luck, the influence of other people, good looks or suchlike are the real reasons why they have made it to where they are rather their innate talent.  All of this second-guessing themselves has a significant impact on their performance and they struggle to repeat the achievements that helped them to get to their current level of success.

In working with people like Peter, what tends to provide them with significant benefits in the coaching relationship is to explore their sense of identity.  Peter had lost touch with his own personal values and had instead began to falsely live the values of the organisation.  This again is a common experience in organisations as many executives are constantly in the dazzling glare of the spotlight being shone upon them by their followers, peers and stakeholders.  They are playing their part in a play, but unlike the actor who is able to switch off their character at the end of the play, the executive rarely gives themselves the opportunity to switch off or finds it difficult to maintain boundaries between the various aspects of their personal and professional lives.  The coaching serves to uncover and make these values conflicts more conscious so as coaches we are able to help Peter make sense of his experience and start to work on the self-limiting beliefs surrounding his capabilities and identity.

So why isn’t this syndrome more prevalent?

The simple truth of the matter is that the imposter syndrome is something that executives and people in power have great difficulty in talking about in private, never mind publicly declaring their deepest fears.  What does tend to happen though is that the higher that someone rises in an organisation, the more likely they are to feel this.  Mid-level managers who are teetering on the edge of “super-stardom” may start to become affected by these thoughts and behaviours that we have described.  While being a middle-manager it might have been possible for them to hide; but faced now with the very real prospect of being “outed” as an imposter, many self-defeating behaviours may start to impact their performance and sabotage their success.

So what about you?

I know that for me personally I have struggled in my own therapeutic journey to identify my true self; this is not a comfortable process but it is a rewarding one as I have a clearer sense now of my self and what makes me tick.  Rather than now do things to please other people or get their praise and positive strokes, I do things now (mainly) because I want to.  I say mainly because it is still a work in progress for me, after all patterns that have taken forty years to create tend to be a little more difficult to shake, even with all of my NLP skills  🙂 .

So what about you?  What is going to help you if, like me and our example of Peter, you labour under the stress of the imposter syndrome.  I have provided some reflections and self-coaching questions here to help you explore the extent to which the imposter syndrome may be impacting your performance.  If you would like to explore this subject in a little more detail then please do contact me privately as I understand that this type of exploration and conversation isn’t one that lends itself to be shared on web forums.  I would be happy to spend some time with you.

Reflections and coaching questions

Do you have a good sense of self, i.e. who you really are, what you stand for, what you would die for?

Are you clear on your identity?  What is your place in the world?  One exercise I share with my coaching clients is the values elicitation exercise (<– follow link )

Think about a difficult situation that is current for you. Take a moment to just be with it.  How close do your thoughts and feelings align with that reality? Are you able to have a good grasp on reality?  How often do you check your assumptions with reality?  How often do you find yourself believing that your thoughts or feelings are reality?

Do you underplay your achievements in your professional life? How much do you feel that has luck been a factor in your achievements?

Have you noticed any behaviours that have recently started to negatively impact your performance?  Are you effective in managing your time?  Do you prevaricate on urgent decisions?  How effective are you at delegating?