Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

By Hien DeYoung, PCC

A lot has been written about imposter syndrome. LinkedIn has a course on overcoming imposter syndrome. A February 11, 2021 Harvard Business Review article admonished us to stop telling women they have imposter syndrome — which I agree with because many male executive leaders I coach have imposter syndrome as well.

To be clear, imposter syndrome is when we doubt our abilities, and are afraid that others will find out that we are a fraud and the fallout that will come from that. I have yet to meet a man or woman who has not experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their life. Oh yes, imposter syndrome doesn’t just strike us in our professional endeavors. It can also plague us in our personal lives.

When I think over my executive coaching engagements, there are three common situations where imposter syndrome thrives. Have you experienced any of these situations? How did you overcome your imposter syndrome?

1. The Leader’s Long Shadow

A long shadow is when someone has a long-lasting influence on someone else. In a reporting relationship, casting a long shadow over your direct report is ripe territory for triggering imposter syndrome in them. This occurs when a person feels that who they are is not who their manager wants them to be. What happens is the person is not listened to. Instead the manager imposes their ideas, their ways of working, and their decision making onto them.

What if you’re the person whose imposter syndrome has been triggered? Step into who you are. The opportunity is to define your leadership values that enable you to perform at your best and highest. Then have a communications strategy for that leader so you can build your influence with them to put forward your ideas, ways of working, and decision making. The secret sauce is being centered in what makes you a separate individual from your manager.

2. New And Shiny

When I got my new Mini Cooper many years ago, I wanted to keep it shiny and pristine. The day the door ding showed up I nearly cried. Something akin to this happens when we step into a new role, new job, or new opportunity. We want to show up as competent and confident. This is a red carpet opportunity for imposter syndrome. There is a subject matter learning cycle that we all go through as we learn-apply-fail-adapt. Additionally there is the forming-storming-norming-performing cycle as we integrate into a team.

The opportunity is to recognize that the more we resist being vulnerable, the longer we stay in imposter syndrome which blocks our performance. Vulnerability opens the door to relationships and people’s desire to invest in our success. Also listening. Listening creates connection to others. When others feel listened to, they will give you the magic keys to unlocking the answers that will enable you to be successful in your new adventure.

3. Been There, Done That 

If you read biographies of talented athletes, its not their talent that got them there or keeps them at the top of their sport. It’s their relentless drive to practice every day for winning. If you have been at the top of your role and no longer find it challenging or significant, imposter syndrome is the signal that its time for a new adventure. When what we do has become stale, routine, or no longer has meaning for us, we stop the disciplines that keeps us sharp. This is a fool-proof recipe for significant mistakes to happen, and the knowledge that we’re not showing up with everything like we once did. There is now room for imposter syndrome to take residence.

The opportunity is to look at what keeps us where we are. Is it valuable enough for us to reboot and stay? We can do this by embarking on learning a new competency, investigating a new business idea, and/or developing the next set of the leaders in the organization. Alternatively, perhaps it’s time for a new adventure elsewhere, and trigger your succession.

Rooting Out Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a secondary outcome to a situation. The key is to figure out the underlying situation that triggers it. If you have imposter syndrome and are at a loss as to the trigger and how to address it, start with keeping a tally. Begin with (a) what happened, (b) what you believe about the situation, and (c) what did imposter syndrome whisper in your ear. Keeping this tally will enable you to clearly see the pattern, and identify the situation. This will then enable you to create a solution. If imposter syndrome is stopping you in your tracks, talk to people you trust and who are invested in you. They will help you regain your bearing. A wonderful book for imposter syndrome is Own Your Greatness, by Dr. Lisa Orbe-Austin. It’s a well written, actionable book. Dr. Orbe-Austin also has a TED Talk and YouTube videos on the topic of imposter syndrome.

To learn more about how overcoming imposter syndrome, and how executive coaching can help you develop and strengthen your leadership skills, schedule a consultation with Hien.