How to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud at Work
I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”
–– Maya Angelou
By John Millen
When I’m working with leaders and entrepreneurs one on one, they’ll often reveal their deepest secrets. One of the most common is that they sometimes feel like a fraud, known as the “imposter syndrome.”
These “imposters” keep it a secret because they think they are the only ones who feel that way—and worry that revealing themselves would show weakness. I reassure them that most people, especially high-achievers, feel that way, too.
In fact, research published in 2019 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that up to 82 percent of people at some point feel imposter syndrome. The findings were based on responses from more than 14,000 participants across 62 studies.
Successful Women Only?
Humans have probably experienced these feelings through the ages, but the modern concept seems to have begun with the research of Dr. Pauline Clance in the 1970s.
She initially believed what she called the “imposter phenomenon” was experienced exclusively by successful women in a male-dominated culture. Through additional research, she came to realize that fraudulent feelings are rife throughout the population.
Some research also links imposter syndrome with perfectionism. That’s the sense that “if I can’t do this job perfectly, I must not be qualified. I’m a fraud.”
The primary problem for leaders is that if you feel like a fraud, your executive presence – your communication – will suffer. Exuding confidence, particularly during periods of disruption, is critical to success in business and life.
Here are seven strategies I’ve used myself successfully and with clients on how to deal with imposter syndrome.
1. Remember, you’re not alone.
As I noted, more than 80 percent of people at some point feel fraudulent. And this is true at every level of an organization, from front-line manager to CEO.
In fact, from my experience, the higher you rise in an organization, the more likely you are to feel less than qualified, especially in the beginning.
Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks and presidential candidate, said that he and other CEOs talk about feeling like imposters in their roles: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”
2. Stop comparing yourself
The saying to live by is that “comparison is the thief of joy.” This is no more true than in a digital/social world where people post only their best moments and give the impression that their lives are endlessly exciting.
There will always be better and worse people than we are, but we tend to compare ourselves with those who seem to have it all together. There is no upside in this comparison unless you use someone as a role model to motivate you.
3. Express your fears
As they say, FEAR is false evidence appearing real. So much of what we see and interpret passes through the negative filter created by our anxiety or perfectionism. We set such high standards and believe we are not achieving anything worthwhile.
Talking to a trusted friend, mentor or professional counselor can give you the perspective you need to see the reality. Sometimes, just verbalizing your fear can provide release.
4. Suspend judgment
Consistent with this perspective is giving yourself a break. Try to turn off the negative voice in your head that is reminding you today of past insecurities or failures.
It's a sad truth that in our heads we say harsh things to ourselves we would never use to criticize anyone else. Try to spot those searing words and say them out loud. As with fear, they lose their power in the open air.
5. Reframe your story
One way to stop the negative voice in your mind is to reframe your story. As humans, we are hardwired for and the person we tell stories to the most is ourselves.
Take the time to write down the feelings you are experiencing as an “imposter.” Look for the root of the story. Did a parent, a coach or a high school kid say something that left you with an imprint?
Was it a perceived “failure” that set a standard you’re applying today? If so, draw that out and rewrite the story. What happened in the past is not relevant to what you face today. The past does not have to be prolog to the present.
6. Shift your mindset
What I’ve found is helpful with clients is your mindset in two ways away from a focus on yourself: First, shift from you to the value you are bringing to others. Think in specific terms about what you do that has an impact on people.
Second, change from a performance mindset to a learning mindset. It’s better to gauge whether you are growing than measuring up, especially in a new position.
7. Fake it until you become it
In her viral TED Talk, which I recommend you watch, Dr. Amy Cuddy described her own feelings of being an imposter. She had planned to drop that section of her talk as “too personal” and later was surprised to find an outpouring of people who resonated with her story.
Cuddy’s research led her to conclude that adopting body language may physically transform us by releasing confidence-boosting hormones. You don’t have to fake it till you make it. You can fake it until you become it.
As you continue to take on new challenges, it’s only natural to feel some sense of inadequacy. That’s how you know you’re growing because personal growth happens outside of our comfort zones. And that’s okay.
As Dr. Cuddy concludes in her excellent follow-up book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.
Most of us will probably never completely shed our fears of being fraudulent. We’ll just work them out as they come, one by one. I can’t say that you will soon shed all your impostor anxieties forever. New situations may stoke old fears; future sensations of inadequacy might reawaken long-forgotten insecurities. But the more we are aware of our anxieties, the more we communicate about them, and the smarter we are about how they operate, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up. It’s a game of whack-a-mole we can win.
But as we face continuous change in the world, our feelings of fraudulence may arise. Push them aside and focus on bringing your best self every day.