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Do you feel like a fraud? Dealing with impostor syndrome

31 March 2017 - By Kate Geenty

Do you ever get the feeling you’re not as talented or as smart as people think you are? That you’ve fluked your way into a good job and one day people are going to figure out you’re a fraud? If so, you’re not alone. That feeling has a name – impostor syndrome, and it’s commonly felt by high achievers.

Harold Hillman, a former clinical psychologist and author of the book The Impostor Syndrome: Becoming an Authentic Leader, says professional services firms are “fertile ground” for impostor syndrome. “The profile is typically someone who has a lot of drive, high aspirations, and who sets the bar high for themselves. They’re usually leaning on the side of typical perfectionism, in the sense of probably having unrealistic standards.”

A dog wearing glasses and using a computer

The symptoms

Impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, was first described in a 1978 study by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Their study, which involved interviewing 150 women, found the most commonly reported symptoms of imposter syndrome were generalised anxiety, a lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to an inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement.

You are not alone

You might feel like the only person at your workplace who is struggling with feelings of inadequacy, but around 70% of the workforce will experience a bout of impostor syndrome at some point in their career says Dr Hillman. When he’s working with clients who are suffering from the syndrome the first thing he tries to do is normalise it. “Most people suffer in silence, whereas in fact if you just said hey, I’m terrified, the people sitting around the table with you are likely to say ‘I’m terrified too’,”.

The American-born Dr Hillman, who has a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, has struggled with impostor syndrome himself, in a career that has ranged from working in the US military to working in human resources for companies like Prudential Financial and Fonterra Co-operative.

“When I was promoted to chief learning officer at Prudential, I experienced the full slate of impostor syndrome, just relating to the need to be perfect, not wanting anybody to perceive that I could possibly make a mistake or be wrong about anything.”

He was again struck by self-doubt when he moved to New Zealand in 2003 to join Fonterra. “I’d never worked in dairy, I’d never been to New Zealand, I’d never lived outside of the US. I was on so many learning curves and I felt ok, here comes impostor syndrome again.”

In that case, he simply opened up to his colleagues about how he was feeling and what he needed help with. He was relieved to find many of his peers were feeling the same way.

Don’t isolate yourself

People who feel like frauds generally don’t want to admit to feeling out of their depth, so they close themselves off from colleagues and are usually unwilling to accept help or advice. “People who have impostor syndrome are often very worried that people will think they’re not qualified, so they tend to close themselves off from any potential scrutiny. They’re very guarded and very defensive.”

A small dog using a computer

However, the antidote to impostor syndrome is doing the opposite – opening yourself up to help, support and input from your peers rather than turning it away, says Dr Hillman, who is now a New Zealand citizen and runs the Auckland-based business consultancy Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group.

“Say you’re at a meeting and one of your peers across the table makes a good point and causes you to reflect on your own thinking and move your own thinking a bit. A person with impostor syndrome would probably not say to that person ‘thank you for helping me think about that differently’ because the person with impostor syndrome would see it as a weakness to admit that someone had actually helped them.”

Bosses are affected too

Dr Hillman says while impostor syndrome can affect anyone with drive and ambition, he sees it a lot in people who have been recently promoted. “You see it a lot in first-time team leaders, and at board level. I see it in first-time chairmen, first-time CEOs and directors going on to boards. With these promotions and big appointments, people get terrified that they’re going to disappoint someone. There’s this fear that they can’t be vulnerable.”

He says impostor syndrome can lead to micromanagement tendencies in team leaders and managers. “If I have impostor syndrome I’m going to worry like hell that my team is going to produce something that makes me look bad. There’s just more worry, worry, worry.”

Tips on dealing with impostor syndrome

  • Be willing to ask for and accept help and advice,
  • Realise that you can’t be perfect all of the time – neither can your staff. Being wrong occasionally or making the odd mistake does not mean you are incompetent or a fraud, it means that you are human,
  • Be prepared to let people know you’re on a learning curve,
  • Recognise and affirm your own strengths and achievements,
  • Learn to take a compliment, don’t deflect praise or downplay your achievements,
  • Keep a record of positive feedback, so if you start doubting yourself you can read it back,
  • Remember, you are not alone – lots of successful, competent people feel like fakes.

What if you really are a fraud?

Chances are if you really are an impostor who is terrible at your job, you won’t even realise it. Research shows that the more inept someone is, the more competent they think they are. The Dunning-Kruger effect was named in 1999, following a study by Cornell University’s David Dunning and Justin Kruger.

The study tested students’ grammar, logic and humour, and then compared the results with how the students thought they had performed. Those who scored well had consistently underestimated their performance, while those who got the lowest scores had overestimated their score.

“This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it,” the researchers said in their paper Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.

“I’m scared to death that at some point I’m going to get found out. You know, Tim [Cook] is going to realise the truth about me, which is I’m terrible.”
— Apple’s vice president of user interface design, Alan Dye, in a recent interview with Bloomberg.

“After 15 or so years as a corporate lawyer, you can imagine my surprise to have the opportunity to join the Maori Land Court. I had to think hard about what I could offer; would my experience be of value? And I think a lot of us, particularly women, struggle with what is often called ‘imposter syndrome’. Am I good enough? Can I do the job? Do I have the right experience for this role? The key is to recognise opportunities and have the courage to take them. Believe that you have the capability to rise to the challenge. Don’t be afraid to close one door and walk through the next one.”
— Judge Sarah Reeves, in a speech to the Federation of Maori Authorities National Conference in 2014.

“You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, ‘I made it!’ You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other.”
— American comedian and actress Amy Poehler in her book Yes, Please.

“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself – or even excelled – I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up … This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name – the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.”
— Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In.

“Imposter Syndrome is like the boogie man: open the closet, turn on the lights, look around, and you see that nothing is there.”
— Security engineer at software development firm Github, Scott Roberts, in a blog post.

Last updated on the 31st March 2017