Ever felt that you are a bit of a fraud at work? Despite good feedback and apparently doing well, you can’t shake the feeling that you don’t belong? What’s going on in your head may sound a little like this, “What am I doing here? In a position like this? I’ve been lucky to get this far, but luck runs out. It’s just me - everyone else is so confident. If I weren’t a phony, I’d have that confidence too.”

The thought that you shouldn’t be there triggers a feeling of fear. The fear has a physical dimension – sweating, flushing or my personal nemesis, randomised squeaky voice. We make decisions to compensate such as working harder, holding back, or working out alternative ways to get ahead.

Exposing the fraud

I’m talking about imposter experience, one of the great ironies of which is that people who are high performers are more likely to doubt their ability. Why? Because their increased knowledge only heightens their appreciation of how much they don’t know – which drives harder work – which drives higher achievement, but with more strings of dread attached. Not a good place to be.

Let’s be clear. Imposterism isn’t an illness or a ‘syndrome’. It’s a human experience everyone has had at some time in their life. Taken to extremes though, it can be serious. Much has been written about it in recent years, most of which is unrelated to solid research. Let’s put some facts on the table.

As serious a problem as financial fraud?

All organisations take financial fraud seriously, but in the era of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter should this be a priority for hard-pressed HR? Let’s be honest – some might welcome the triple benefits that many insecure overachievers bring - hard work, high delivery and low entitlement mentality (a great money saver at compensation review time). The benefit seems to be all for employer, the cost all for the individual.

Here are three reasons why feelings of fraud among your people is a business problem:

  • If you care about performance, you should know that it limits how much of someone’s potential is realised. That limits success of the team and the enterprise. Also, the way some people compensate for feeling inadequate can be harmful to others and toxic to culture.
  • If you care about mental health, you should know there is a well-established link to burnout, anxiety, and depression.
  • If you care about racial equality, you should know that this experience is prevalent among ethnic minorities. One study found it to be a stronger predictor of mental health issues than the stress of minority status. That’s massive, but not well known. This is one reason why it was a key part of my work with the Stephen Lawrence Foundation to help disadvantaged black students bridge the gap between university and starting their careers.

What about gender differences?

As it is the week of International Women’s Day, what of differences between women and men? Contrary to popular belief, the research isn’t definitive as to whether or not it is more prevalent among women or men. Nevertheless, there seem to be some differences.

One intriguing study compared Type A women and Type A men. Type As tend to be more competitive, work-orientated, impatient, results driven and aggressive. It found “as the Type A scores of the men increased, so did their imposter scores; the opposite pattern was true of women.” Interesting. I’ve spent my career in predominantly female teams and worked with many alpha men and women, both as their trouble-shooter and as their coach. That research isn’t wholly outside my experience.

Takeaways

What to do about all this? Three key things jump out in the week when we are all invited to choose to challenge:

  1. Challenge yourself to understand it better – it is a normal experience, so if it’s an issue for you be kind to yourself. This can be the biggest – and hardest – hurdle. Hard as it may seem, know that you have the power to change the patterns of the past.
  2. Challenge yourself to try making some changes – the key is managing self-doubt and the assumptions you are making. Have you fallen into the double bind of comparing your insides with others’ outsides and inferring that they are competent just because they project confidence? Many leaders I’ve worked with do just that. Unhealthy workplaces have more play-acting going on than Rada. Avoid ill-informed advice and unhelpful people. Get support if you need it – a friend, a coach or a psychologist depending how much it is affecting you. I can testify to the value all three can add.
  3. Challenge unhelpful workplace cultures - some workplaces seem designed to chip away at our confidence. Our day to day environment at home and work can play a massive part, as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey reminded me. Behaviours such as hypercriticism; put downs; blame-gaming; credit taking; insatiable demands; and being treated as invisible take their toll. If it’s happening to you, experiment with ways to be mindful and to challenge it. If you’re there when it’s happening to someone else, then play your part in challenging it. Ultimately, if you’re not being valued remember they need you more than you need them. Just leave.

Remember what the imposter really is

We will be making a session available on our website shortly that goes into this in detail, with some practical exercises. We hope you find it a useful resource if this is an issue for you or you are trying to improve the culture where you work.

Know this. Whoever and wherever you are reading this, we think you’re unique and great. How do we know? Because you’re human and have the good sense to be reading this!

Above all, never forget that in the modern workplace, excluding behaviour is the real imposter.