Why impostor syndrome often surfaces in a new leadership role and what you can do to tackle it

Do you feel that you’re waiting to be found out, that your success is due to luck or that others have an inflated view of you?  If so, you’re not alone.

Impostor syndrome (or the impostor phenomenon as it is correctly known) is defined as ‘an intense feeling of intellectual phoniness, despite successes.’1It affects high-performing and successful women and men who feel anything but.  And it’s incredibly common: 70% of successful people are likely to experience it at some point.2  

Technically, impostor syndrome is not a syndrome, as a syndrome remains constant over time.  For most of us, the feeling of not being worthy of our success comes and goes, showing up in specific situations, and it exists on a scale of intensity unique to each of us.  

Impostor syndrome has three defining features:3 

  1. The tendency to think that others see you as more competent than you are.
  2. An underlying fear that your true abilities will be found out.
  3. A  persistent tendency to attribute successes to external factors such as luck, your team, or that ‘anyone could have done it’, rather than owning these.  You may also find yourself agonising over criticism or mistakes, however small.  

When does impostor syndrome show up? 

Many of us have felt like impostors at various times in our careers and lives. It’s often triggered:

  • During times of change or when there’s a new challenge, such as taking on a new role, greater responsibility, or working in an area with a higher profile.  
  • Where there’s a highly critical culture where mistakes are not tolerated or are disapproved of.  This increases anxiety around making mistakes, failing, and being found out.  
  • These feelings can be further intensified when an individual feels isolated, or that they don’t belong, or has other sources of stress such as a lack of support at home or health issues.   

How does it show up?

Often people experiencing impostor syndrome adopt unhelpful coping strategies to avoid being found out. Common ones include:

  • Over preparation and hard work
  • Perfectionism 
  • Procrastination
  • Hiding out, avoiding, or keeping a low profile
  • Not finishing
  • Self-handicapping 

While these may lead to greater success, they come at a high cost to health, individual and team performance, and relationships, often resulting in bouts of high anxiety and stress and risking burnout.  

The good news is impostor syndrome is learnt, so there are many things we can do to help manage it, this includes;  

Building a more accurate view of ourself 

With impostor syndrome, we hold an inaccurate view of ourselves.  We can develop a more accurate view by building up evidence of the facts.   

Take time to reflect on this question:  Looking back on your life, what are the accomplishments, achievements, or successes you are most proud of?  

These can be small or large, personal or professional, drawing in all your strengths, skills, and the positive feedback you’ve received.  Write everything down, resisting the temptation to judge or explain away your accomplishments, achievements, and successes.  Read this regularly to help internalise and own your successes.   

Practice asking for and accepting feedback

To create a new narrative and help internalise our accomplishments, we can ask for and practice accepting feedback.  Others often see us differently from how we see ourselves and can help us take a more rounded self-view.  

Many people associate feedback with criticism or judgement, so start by:

  • Asking people you respect and trust
  • Keep a record of all the positive feedback you receive 
  • Resist saying anything other than thank you
  • Refer to, read, and add to your feedback often

And allow yourself to take as much nourishment from the feedback as possible.  

Developing greater self-compassion

How we drive ourselves through impostor syndrome is often harsh, relentless, and loaded with judgement and self-criticism. 

Developing greater self-compassion helps combat the cycle of self-defeating thoughts and behaviours.  A helpful exercise is to imagine, ‘what would you say to a close friend in the same situation?’ 

These responses can be called upon when impostor thoughts arise or if you catch yourself using unhelpful coping strategies.

Catching and rethinking comparison 

With impostor syndrome, we often compare our weaknesses to others’ strengths, thinking everyone is more competent and capable. 

Constant comparison results in high self-criticism, which only serves to reinforce impostor thoughts and feelings.  By consciously noticing when we are doing it, we can make a conscious choice to stop.  

Comparing ourselves to others is not a kind practice.  Each of us is on a different path, with our unique skills and abilities, and everyone progresses at their own rate.  

Living free from impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is incredibly common in high-achieving and successful people and often arises at times of change or transition, such as stepping into a new leadership role.  

While we may have adopted a whole range of unhelpful strategies to cope, impostor syndrome is learnt, and there are many things we can do to manage it.  Identifying when it comes into play, challenging it, and creating a more accurate narrative about ourselves are all ways we can loosen the grip it has on us and live a happier and more fulfilled life.    

If this resonates for you, and you’d like to quieten the impostor within, then let’s have a chat about how coaching can help.

  1. Clance, P.R. (1985), The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.
  2. Matthews, G. (1984).  Impostor Phenomenon: Attributions for Success and Failure. In G.Matthews (Chair), Impostor phenomenon: Research, assessment, and treatment issues.  Symposium conducted at the 92nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Canada.
  3. Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention, in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15(3), 241–247

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