Feel Like an Imposter at Work? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I was recently promoted to director of contracts and compliance at a global staffing organization. I have a great team, I seem to be well regarded in the organization, and I get along well with my direct boss and his boss, who is the regional CEO.

I am often tapped to lead or be part of special projects and am often consulted on issues that aren’t part of my remit. I never say “no” to anything because I worry that I will be seen as not contributing enough. I am haunted by the feeling that I just lucked into this position, and one day someone is going to realize I am really not that smart and I will be summarily fired.

My wife—a child psychologist, who you would think would be more helpful—laughs at me and tells me I have this fear because I never graduated university.

I know I need to get better at saying “no” to things so I can concentrate on my job, but I just can’t seem to get over this feeling of dread. What do you recommend?

Never Enough

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Dear Never Enough,

You, my friend, have a classic case of Imposter Syndrome. I estimate that 7 out of 10 extraordinarily successful people I have coached have suffered the same way, so you are definitely not alone. The official research statistics are all over the place—but there has been plenty of research. I have noticed this condition can be particularly acute among people who don’t tick every box on the “expected achievements” list for the position they occupy—so your lack of an advanced degree is probably exacerbating your paranoia.

Here is a short TED talk that describes what Imposter Syndrome is and how to combat it.

The way I have always worked on IS with clients is to ask them to do a reality check. The first step is to ask yourself:

  • Have I received an official notice from my boss that I am not meeting performance expectations?
  • Have I ever lied about my qualifications and been afraid of being found out? (This one is a doozy—I once worked with a client who had lied about graduating from college and was, in fact, found out. It was embarrassing, but she kept her job.)
  • Have I received performance feedback that leads me to think I am failing at my job in some way?
  • Can I point to evidence that leads me to think others suspect I am not worthy of the job I have?

I suspect the answer to all of the above questions is no. If so, then, as I always say, stay focused on reality and let it go.

I recently came across a piece in a book that I think is worth sharing: My Friend Fear by Meera Lee Patel. Patel defines IS: “The imposter syndrome is the fear that our achievements aren’t deserved, that underneath our progress and success we’re actually fraudulent and unworthy. When we receive a raise or promotion at work, we believe we simply got lucky—it couldn’t be that our efforts and determination finally paid off.”

But Patel said something else I have never heard or read before:

“While this particular fear will do everything in its power to dismiss your successes, it also highlights your most intimate wish: to be a caring parent, a successful writer, or a trusted friend. The imposter syndrome affects those of us who wish to be of value—not because we are ego-driven, but because we want to believe we have something to offer.

Our doubt comes from our desire.

When you feel the imposter syndrome coming on, invite it to sit beside you. Close your eyes and feel the waves of self-doubt vibrate through your bones. Slowly, let them soften and subside. Watch carefully as the guilt your feel outlines the things you care about most in this world, and feel gratitude for your ability to discern what makes you feel alive. This is not easy work, but it is essential. Like all other fears, the imposter syndrome has two faces: one that can help and one that can harm. Which you choose to see is up to you.” (Pg. 87)

 I agree. Fear is data, and we can let it control us or we can interpret the data and choose what to do with it. It is amazing how common this syndrome is. The key is to not let it stop you. Fear is always there—you can depend on it. So you might as well make friends with it and take the gifts it gives not as truth but as an indication of what is most important to you. You can notice the fear, seek to understand what it has to offer you, be grateful for it, and put it in its place. I worked with one client who kept a small box in her briefcase . When she felt overwhelmed by her IS, especially before big presentations, she would take the box out, put her fear in it for safe keeping for the duration of her big moment, then take it out again and thank it for its attentive patience. It 100% worked for her.

Right now you are letting your fear—which is fueled by your desire to be a great manager and corporate citizen—control you. You are allowing it to push you to say “yes” when you know you need to be saying “no.” It is costing you; and if you allow it to continue, it could cause you to be so overextended that your job performance suffers and voilà: self-fulfilling prophecy.

Please don’t let that happen.

I am not saying you shouldn’t take on cool value-add projects that are interesting to you—it’s just that you can’t accept everything simply because your fear is saying you must. Again, a little dose of reality can be useful. Some questions to ask yourself when invited to a new project:

  • Is this irresistibly interesting to me?
  • Is there something important for me to learn by joining this team?
  • Do I have something to add that nobody else can bring?
  • Will I meet new and interesting people that will expand my network in the organization?
  • Will joining this team attract the positive attention of people who can be advocates for me in the organization?
  • Will I really have the time to devote myself to this project without my actual job performance suffering?

I would submit that you will want to be able to answer each of those questions with an unequivocal YES before allowing yourself to even consider accepting another invitation. I mean, seriously, I suspect your job is full-time enough. And even then, consider limiting your projects to a low number—like 2. A year. Max. Or better yet, take some time off and use that time to sit with your fear, make friends with it, and convince it that it is not the boss of you.

And tell your wife to be nicer. Your suffering isn’t funny, and she could at least try to empathize. Just saying.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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