The fear that you’ve gotten to where you are because you got lucky — not because of skill or talent — can hold you back.
“I’m worried that I’m no good without my team,” a senior director told me. She was transitioning to a new role in a new organization, leaving behind the team she had built and developed over several years — a team that would walk through fire for her.
I looked at her, this strong, articulate, intelligent, accomplished professional. Time to talk about so-called impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is that feeling that you’re a fraud. That you’re just making things up as you go along, but everyone around you is expert. You worry that your accomplishments are a fluke. You can fake it on the outside, but you have this gnawing feeling on the inside.
I often use a personal story in my coaching to illustrate to clients how impostor syndrome creeps into our thinking.
I told my client about a telephone call I’d had with a potential executive coaching client. At the end of the call, he told me he was talking to a couple of other coaches and would get back to me (which you should always do before hiring a coach, by the way).
A couple of days later I got an email from him: “Well, I have completed my interviews and I must say you are by far the most impressive. I would like to schedule a first meeting with you.”
That was a nice email to get, but not unusual. And yet my first reaction to this email was, “Huh, I bet he didn’t talk to very impressive coaches. I should introduce him to coaches whom I think are impressive.” And I started comparing myself to impressive coaches, which didn’t feel very good.
My thought process was textbook impostor syndrome: This potential client told me he wanted to work with me, and I felt like a fraud.
I’ve found in my coaching practice that impostor syndrome tends to show up in people in generalist, creative and leadership roles, where the value of their output is subjective. It’s not, unfortunately, something you outgrow — unchecked, it can worsen as you grow in seniority. The research shows that it affects men and women equally.
I tell my story about that potential client’s email to illustrate how ridiculous impostor syndrome is. The trick is to catch the whiff of ridiculousness in the moment.
Then consider the empirical evidence that you are good at what you do.
And you power through. (All of this can be hard to do. Coaching can help.)
My client was able to recognize impostor syndrome in her thinking. She was able to laugh (sort of) at the ridiculousness of her worry that she wouldn’t be good without her team. She started her new job, with a new team.
Already they would walk through fire for her.