Guess who said this to me?  

Was it someone stepping up to their first supervisory position?  An early career professional embarking upon a daunting high-visibility assignment?  A novice project manager taking-on a global IT implementation?


This is a quote from a very senior executive, responsible for a 400-person $100M global business unit.  In my work on an assignment for his firm, where I am coaching him and six of his peers, five of the six expressed similar coaching objectives – listing “building self-confidence” as one of their top three developmental priorities.

How is it possible that leaders at the helm of a major enterprise would be experiencing a crisis of confidence?

Back in the early 1980s psychological researchers coined the term “Impostor Syndrome” to refer to the fear of being “found out” for “faking it” – for not being as talented or competent as one appears.  Initially it was believed that women suffer from this syndrome more than men, but now we know that both genders are at risk, as many as 70% of the population may be affected, and that these misperceptions are particularly prevalent among high performers.

The Impostor Syndrome may be especially likely to strike when we are presented with a difficult new challenge.  Even though you’ve successfully met every new challenge in the past, is this next one too much?  Will it all come crashing down?  Will your wings burn flying too close to the sun?

Moreover, when encountering new opportunities, do you shy away from stepping forward to grab them?  Do you tell yourself you’re not quite ready yet, or that someone else could do the job better?  Do you avoid climbing the professional ladder, or are surprised when career opportunities are offered to you?  Do you neglect positive self-advocacy because you don’t want to appear to be bragging, arrogant, overly ambitious?

If you endure any of these examples of negative self-talk, you may be suffering from Impostor Syndrome:

  • One day they’ll find out I’m not as great as they think I am.
  • My boss just put me up for a promotion.  I don’t know if I’m ready – I still have so much to learn – the new position seems like three steps beyond me.
  • I got nominated for “team leader of the year”?  I’ve got them fooled!
  • Wow, I can’t believe I’m part of this organization.  They are all so much smarter than me.
  • I know that I’ve gotten the highest performance rating every year for the last five years, but this new assignment is just beyond me.  I know I’ll have to put in 80 hour weeks and work twice as hard as everyone else just to get a “meets requirements” evaluation.
  • When I look back at my major career accomplishments, luck played such a big part.

Indeed, it’s often in times of change that the Impostor Syndrome rears its ugly head.  And given that we’re all bombarded with constant change, which is by definition ambiguous and uncertain – and at times unwanted – and increasing in scope, pace, and complexity – it probably should not come as a surprise that my executive coaching clients – and perhaps many folks we all work with, and even some readers of this newsletter – might be feeling stressed and anxious about not being up to the task.

If you suffer from Impostor Syndrome – at least in some situations – and if you have the nagging fear that it’s holding you back from realizing all you were meant to contribute – here are some strategies to try out:

As with developing Change Intelligence, the first step is awareness – become aware of this tendency, acknowledge that at times it plagues you, and accept that it’s normal to sometimes feel insecure.

Next, recognize “your own b.s.” for what it is – a belief system – that you created and that you can change.  The Impostor Syndrome results from flawed thinking, and by shining a light on your own misapprehensions you can fix your flaws.  Reflect, and reframe.

Make a list of your successes and your talents.  Keep score.  Now, reconcile this objective, factual database with the subjective, fraudulent fears you have invented.  Acknowledge the part you actively, intentionally played in your accomplishments – not luck or chance.  Celebrate!

On the flipside, we all have ways we can improve professionally and personally.  If there is a skill you would benefit from building, or a behavior it would be behoove you to change, make a plan to do so.  Setting and achieving goals boosts self-confidence and is more evidence of your self-efficacy.

Remember that your behavior and your results are not who you are as a person.  We all stumble and we all fall.  The only failure is the failure to try, and the failure to pick ourselves up when we misstep.  We’re all only human, and high achievers tend to be harder on themselves than anyone else around them.

Think “complement” not “compare.”  We don’t have to look far to find someone who’s better than us at something.  And I assert we also don’t have to look far to recognize that there are things we are better at than other people are.  Rather than seeing such differences as good/bad or better/worse, perhaps it is healthier to consider ways we complement each other’s gifts, making us all more effective together.  Moreover, adding empathy to the mix is an even more powerful formula – remember that lots of our coworkers feel like “shams” at times too!

Get into the ring.  Staying safe is boring.  You have too much potential to waste playing small.  Don’t die with your song unsung.  You (and only you) know what song I’m talking about!

Take a trip to the mall.  There was a hilarious scene from the movie Soap Dish, in which Sandy Field played an aging soap opera diva and Whoopie Goldberg her supportive manager.  When Sandy was feeling down because an attractive new actress was hired on the show, Whoopie took her to a mall in New Jersey.  Sandy started descending from the top of a huge, open escalator in the middle of the mall.  At the bottom of the escalator Whoopie, pretending not to know Sandy personally, shouted, “OMG – is it really YOU?!”  After which throngs of adoring fans accosted Sandy for autographs and showered her with an outpouring of affection.  Who’s your Whoopie, the president of your fan club?!  I’ll bet you have many admirers who would welcome the opportunity to remind you how great you are.  We’re so busy that we so often forget to give the people who matter most to us an encouraging word:  I often say that positive feedback is the most impactful and most under-utilized leadership behavior in our workplaces today. Don’t be stingy – give someone the gift of contributing to you – ask a buddy for a “trip to the mall”!

Ready to create powerful and lasting results for your team or organization? Discover your Change Intelligence here.