Imposter syndrome, first coined as a phrase in reference to a subset of high-achieving women, is actually an equal opportunity condition, just as likely to impact IT leaders of any gender. Generally defined as feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evidence of success, imposter syndrome can be more than simply a painful or uncomfortable inner struggle for IT leaders who experience it. It can have a significant impact on choices, behaviors, performance, and even organizational outcomes.
Indeed, it’s those individual and organizational consequences that have brought leaders and employees from some of the biggest technology firms to talk to Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on the topic and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. “When you feel like an imposter, you need to find ways to do both manage the anxiety of waiting for the other shoe to drop and to avoid being found out,” says Young.
These people develop what Pauline Clance, who first researched and wrote about what she called “imposter phenomenon” in 1978, called “coping and protecting mechanisms.” These may come in the form of trying to fly under the radar, workaholism, self-sabotage, procrastination, or being perpetually in-process (never starting or finishing that next big thing).
[ Working on your emotional intelligence? Learn the behaviors to avoid as you build your EQ: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]
“The bad news is, there’s a cost to your protection,” Young says. “The price could come in the form of stress; getting stuck in a job you’ve long outgrown; losing out on promotions, valuable learning experiences or connections; and burnout. And in almost all cases, there is a financial cost.”
At the same time, Young adds, the IT organization loses out on valuable insights and ideas and can experience needless crises, missed opportunities, a drain in the talent pool, and costly burnout.
How to fight imposter syndrome
Consider these five actions that IT leaders can take to fight imposter syndrome:
1. Normalize imposter feelings
“This is where I have to break it to you: You’re not special,” says Young. Researchers estimate that up to 70 percent of people have experienced nagging feelings of fraudulence — nurses, engineers, social workers, well-known executives, Academy-Award-winning actors, and best-selling authors. Sure, we’d all like to feel confident all the time. But that’s not how it works, says Young. “You’re going to have moments of supreme confidence and times when you’re scared silly,” she says. “When you realize that fear and self-doubt are normal, you can stop trying to eliminate imposter feelings and instead focus on talking yourself down faster.”
2. Reframe negative thoughts
“People who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent or capable than the rest of us,” Young points out. “The only difference between them and us is they think different thoughts. That’s it. Which is actually really good news because it means all we have to do is learn to think like ‘non-imposters.’” Those with imposter syndrome often have unrealistic or unsustainable expectations for themselves.
The first step in reframing is to recognize the imposter self-talk as it happens and then take a pause to rethink them the way a more confident person might. “It’s the difference between responding to a huge new assignment with, ‘Oh my God, I have no idea what I’m doing’ and instead thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really going to learn a lot,” says Young. It can be as simple as leaving a meeting and thinking “I’m so stupid,” and instead saying, “I felt so stupid."
When an effort goes poorly, that’s also an opportunity for reframing. “You can feel disappointed, but not ashamed. The only time you should feel shame is if you didn’t really try,” says Young. Reframe it as a learning experience; the more you try, the better you’ll get.
3. Get comfortable with constructive criticism
“When you feel like an imposter, even a single negative comment among five positive can be devastating,” says Young. “I recently spoke to an incredibly talented engineer who was depressed for weeks after her performance review. Her manager told her all the things she excelled at. To her credit, she asked where she could improve. He offered one recommendation which, she said, devastated her.”
Non-imposters, on the other hand, see constructive criticism as a gift and actively seek out more skilled teachers or coaches because they know honest feedback is the only way to constantly get better. So the next time someone compliments you, Young advises, practice saying, ‘Thank you. What’s one thing I could have done even better?’
4. Keep going regardless of how you feel
Feeling like an imposter hurts. “So naturally, what you want is to feel differently. But it doesn’t work that way. In fact, feelings are the last to change,” says Young. “That’s why you can’t wait until you feel confident to take action.” Keep taking on greater responsibility and stretch goals. Do the things that scare you, while continuing to normalize and reframe. “Over time, you’ll start to believe the new thoughts and your feelings will slowly catch up.
5. Let yourself off the hook
Whatever you do, don’t also beat yourself up for feeling like a fraud. “We tend to over-psychologize imposter syndrome when in fact there are situational, social, and organizational factors that contribute,” Young notes. People in certain fields like the creative arts and information-dense or rapidly changing areas like medicine and technology can over-index for imposter syndrome.
Certain organizational cultures can foster self-doubt. Imposter syndrome can intersect with efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. “On some level, we’ve all experienced this,” Young says. So remember imposter syndrome is not your fault, but dealing with it as an IT leader is your responsibility.”
[ Get The Open Organization Workbook, a free download with advice from more than 25 experts on building transparent, collaborative organizations. ]
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Keep up with the latest advice and insights from CIOs and IT leaders.