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Dealing with The Imposter Syndrome

by Peggy Klaus

Each time you move up a notch, does a little voice in your head whisper, “Boy, have you pulled a fast one. You really aren’t good enough to have this many people counting on you. You certainly don’t deserve a job with this much responsibility.” A friend who was stepping into a major management position told me, “Peggy, I feel like such an imposter.” I said, “Of course you do, and you probably will until you learn how to play the new role.”

No matter what line of work you are in or how high you climb, the imposter syndrome—also called the Imposter Complex—is likely to follow you. Although thankfully not at the same time, many successful people suffer from feeling they are bluffing their way up the ladder. They live in fear of being found out. Similar to when Toto pulled back the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, they are fearful of being exposed as mere mortals shaking in their boots. Although I’ve observed the Imposter Complex n numerous people of both genders, especially managers, women seem to be far more vocal about expressing their self-doubt.

Developing awareness about your feelings of being an imposter is the first step to overcoming them. This was the case with one of my clients who called in a panic over what to do when she was offered a significantly bigger job at the company where she already worked. I couldn’t believe my ears: She was on the verge of turning down the position because she had never done it before. I reminded her that she hadn’t done her current job before either. But here she was, four years into it, receiving kudos and being asked to take on a more senior role. By thinking about her success in her current assignment and everything she had learned in order to achieve it—she realized the promotion wasn’t as daunting as she imagined.

The surest way to beat the Imposter Complex is to act as if you are both competent and confident, even if you don’t have all your I’s dotted and T’s crossed. I tell clients who think they belong at the next level to start acting like someone who is already there. As an executive at one of my workshops explained, she divides businesspeople into three camps: the competents, the confidents, and those with both qualities. Some people are competent but have little or no confidence. Others are confident despite little or no competence (these folks are less likely to suffer from the Imposter Complex!). But the winners are those who learn to marry confidence with competence, a rare combination.

Which brings me to my most important point. On one hand feeling like an imposter isn’t always a bad thing since it can drive you to constantly improve yourself and to excel—qualities that great leaders possess. Having aid that, you must be really careful that you don’t go overboard in questioning yourself and your abilities to the point of becoming so frenetic and fearful that you fall short of that winning “double C” combination. After all, no matter where you are in your career, whether just starting out or well on your way, you’re always a work in progress.

About the author

Peggy Klaus is a renowned communication and leadership expert, with over two decades of experience assisting professionals from Fortune 500 companies, mid-size firms, and start-ups. Recognized for her contributions in empowering women of all ages, she has been a frequent presence on national news and popular morning shows and has also penned advice columns for prestigious publications like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, and O Magazine.