THE BLOG

Don't Fear the Impostor Syndrome - Fight It

04/01/2015 05:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

It's one of the ironies of professional life that those most deserving of praise are often the least able to accept it. I've seen this in colleagues of all ages and levels of seniority.

This irony is also known as "impostor syndrome;" the feeling that any time now, someone's going to discover that you don't belong in your job and that you've just been fooling everyone all along. And it can manifest as someone who's a little too open, a little too emotionally honest, in their leadership style.

Impostor syndrome affects college students and CEOs alike, but lately there's been particular focus on how it impacts women in senior positions.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg discussed the issue at length in her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and the "confidence gap" between women and men was the subject of an Atlantic cover story last spring.

But impostor syndrome isn't just about feminism -- a lack of self-confidence in the workplace can hurt the bottom line. Employees who lack confidence may never put themselves up for jobs where they'd excel. Diffident managers micromanage more and delegate less, or try to compensate by confessing their insecurities to employees -- undermining their authority, and damaging a team's cohesion.

This was discussed in a recent Harvard Business Review article on the "authenticity paradox." Being too open and emotionally honest in one's leadership style can backfire. Can you imagine if Sandberg confessed her insecurities at the beginning of her career? She may not have gotten very far.

I've experienced impostor syndrome myself. It's very real, very uncomfortable and very challenging. I've felt that urge to over share to seem more approachable, and to somehow cleanse me of the guilt of rising to where I don't belong. Fortunately, such feelings are very addressable, and I've worked hard to get them under control. Companies, too, must make an effort to combat the impostor syndrome. Like any other talent issue, it won't magically fix itself.

Here are four ways you can put yourself and your company ahead of the game when it comes to tackling the impostor syndrome:

  1. Talk about it. Despite people like Sandburg (and Maya Angelou and Tina Fey) coming forward, many people still think that they're the only ones in their peer group who feel this way. I know I did. Break that pattern by being open about the issue. Make sure your managers know it's a common struggle, and include identifying signs of impostor syndrome in your leadership development programs. Discuss as well knowing when to let your guard down -- such self-monitoring comes easy to some and harder to others, but can be the key to leading well, especially for women.

  • Target skills development. Self-confidence may be a "soft" skill, but it's still a skill. It can be measured, taught and improved. Twenty years ago, it was rare for performance reviews to discuss communication and team-building skills but now we consider that commonplace. So let's add self-confidence to performance discussions, even if it's done informally. Offer classes and personal coaching on halting the perfectionism that often characterizes impostor syndrome. Teach people to focus on their actual accomplishments, rather than an unreachable ideal. Try authenticity training, helping leaders to approach new challenges with an open mind and experiment with different approaches.
  • Focus on company culture. Take a hard look at what your management team has in common. For example, did most of them attend highly selective private colleges? That may leave a talented salesman who went to Ohio State feeling unsure if he should apply for promotion. Do some self-analysis to stop possible blind spots. It's not easy but worthwhile establishing a company culture that reflects - and welcomes - different leadership styles.
  • Recognize the positive side. Impostor syndrome is actually a perversely positive sign, particularly among high achievers. When managers stretch outside their comfort zone, it's natural to worry more than if they never did anything out of the ordinary. Give them the guidance they crave, and they'll blossom. Tackling impostor syndrome head-on might just improve your company's overall self-confidence, too. Companies with employees and leaders who feel sure of themselves are more likely to take risks, to innovate, and to jump at new opportunities when they arise.
  • There's great strength in understanding and supporting leaders so they can do great things for their teams and the organization. In this ever-changing business climate, that's an advantage too important to ignore.