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The Career Professor series...The Imposter Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud". ~ Dr. Pauline Clance & Dr. Suzanne Imes, 1978

Do you ever have the sneaking impression that you're out of your league and that someone is going to pull back the curtain and reveal you to be a fraud?

If you've been recently promoted, or just landed a great new job, chances are that somewhere between the coffee machine and your standup desk, the thought may have occurred to you that you have just been thrown in the deep end, and to quote the great industrial psychologist Jimmy Buffet, you see "fins to the left, fins to the right, and you're the only bait in town".

This Imposter Syndrome is not rare, and it doesn't often require clinical help. But if left unchecked, it can be a major impediment to the success you are working so hard to achieve. First, let's do a quick check to see if you're infected.

Imposter Syndrome Quiz: (T/F)

  1. I believe all my success is a fluke.

  2. Even when I do well, I don't think I really deserve it.

  3. I worry that someone will eventually throw back the curtain and reveal my fraud.

  4. I'm not as smart as my peers.

  5. Sometimes I apologize when I didn't actually do anything wrong.

  6. I often compare myself to others, and find myself wanting.

  7. When asked to talk about accomplishments, I feel like it's bragging, so I downplay it.

  8. I feel like I'm making this up as I go.

  9. I'm good at looking like I know what I'm talking about, even when I don't.

  10. I hold myself to incredibly high or even impossible standards.

If you answered true to more than zero of those questions, then you have likely joined the more than 70% of professionals who have experienced this phenomenon at one time or another.

So are you destined to be a self-fulfilling failure prophecy? Not at all. Here are some simple steps to combat the Imposter Syndrome.

1. Distinguish imposter syndrome from humility

The first step in avoiding a landmine is knowing that there are landmines out there. The second step is finding the landmine. The third step is removing the landmine. There is some comfort in knowing that an estimated 70% of respondents in a recent poll have experienced this syndrome sometime in their careers. But what if your imposter syndrome is cleverly disguised as humility? If you deflect praise as a default posture, you may need to move to step 2.

2. Learn to say "Thank You"

There are many reasons to give someone a compliment, and not all of them are altruistic. But even if the compliment is back-handed or loaded or even sarcastic, the very best thing to do is say, "Thank you!" Not "Awww, shucks". Not "no I didn't really do anything". Not "it was pure luck!". Simply, "Thank you". Once you've mastered that, you can move on to step 3.

3. Share the credit

There is no "I" in team. (There is a "me", but it's backwards, so it doesn't count.) For most of the accomplishments we see in the workplace, there is a group component to the achievement. Here is your chance to be a leader, and call out the great work happening on your team. Give a shout out to the graphics team. Call out the product team by name. Mention the sales team and their great relationship with the customer. Even call out the analytics team, buried in the basement somewhere cranking out Tableau reports in the dark of night. Give them some credit!

In doing so, you will be acknowledging that this is indeed a compliment, that it didn't happen by accident, and that you have an awesome team you are privileged to lead.

4. Point to the scoreboard

In another post, we will be looking at whether your scoreboard (aka Dashboard) is telling the true story. But for now, let's just assume that it is, and that your entire team and the executives above you are looking at it to track progress against goals.

Make sure that your goals are SMART, and that you have achievable milestones, which can be celebrated as a team.

Tom Brady, recognized by many as the G.O.A.T. of the NFL said it this way,

I think the great part about what I do is that there's a scoreboard. At the end of every week, you know how you did. You know how well you prepared. You know whether you executed your game plan. There's a tangible score.
~ Tom Brady

5. Use the Imposter Syndrome to your advantage.

One form of Imposter Syndrome is stage fright. It's the irrational fear that despite all the past successes that got you here, this one is going to flop.

Andrea Boccelli, the greatest tenor of our generation, suffers from incredible stage fright. Let that sink in.

But fear also has the wonderful ability to prime the pump and inject the right amount of adrenaline into the system, crystalizing sights and thoughts, and putting the muscular and nervous system on high alert.

Stage fright is not a thing about 'Am I any good?' It's about 'Am I gonna be good tonight?' It's a right-now thing. It helps me. If I went out there thinkin', 'Eh, we'll go slaughter 'em,' I'm positive something would go seriously wrong.
~ Gregg Allman

When you are in your groove, all the systems and workflows you put in place to do your best work, based on a firm foundation of solid fundamentals, begin to take over, and the magic begins to happen. Embrace your Imposter Syndrome, and use it.

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