Skip to content

Imposter Syndrome at the Executive Level

Although it may seem counterintuitive, imposter syndrome is prevalent at the executive level.  I have a client, let’s call him Ben, who reached out for coaching because the company where he had worked for 20 years had turned into a toxic environment where he no longer felt respected by upper management and his career had stalled.  Ben is a senior director at a well-known multinational company.  In his role, he had built successful and loyal teams, helped develop a drug to cure a prevalent worldwide disease (!), was very well spoken, and he had an impressive education, including a PhD.  When I asked him why he hadn’t left yet, he replied, “I just didn’t know if I’m good enough.”  This is a perfect example of imposter syndrome at the executive level and it’s as common as coronavirus in Wuhan, China.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.

It shows up in different ways.  You’re likely familiar with the well-known manifestation of feeling like a fraud. You may be surprised to hear that it also shows up when:

  • You devalue your worth
  • You undermine your expertise/experience
  • You’re a perfectionist
  • You tend to overprepare/overwork
  • You’re a micromanager

Imposter syndrome at the executive level is no exception. Can you relate to any of the above?

The History of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome was first “discovered” in the 1970s by an Oberlin psychology professor named Pauline Clance. In her research, she found that even though her students had attended the best schools, excelled in standardized testing, and earned exceptional grades, many didn’t feel like they deserved to be attending the prestigious university, reporting, “somehow the admissions committee made an error.”  At first, this condition was attributed solely to women.  But over time, psychologists found examples in both genders.

A study in the mid-1980’s found that at least 70% of people from all walks of life had felt like imposters for at least some part of their careers.

If high achievers are likely to fall prey to the clutches of imposter syndrome and, logically, high achievers are also the most likely to rise in their careers, it’s not surprising that imposter syndrome at the executive level is rampant.

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

Let’s look back at the rewards system in our established systems. In school, the primary way to externally gauge if you’re excelling in your achievements is through your grades. This starts to establish a dependence on external validation to determine “if we’re up to snuff.”  As we transition into the corporate world, this “external validation” becomes our performance review, (which can largely be driven by qualitative data) and comments about our contributions from our management team. This is a very dangerous foundation to determine our self-worth. Here are four reasons why:

  1. You don’t get along with your boss

Even if you’re meeting all of your goals at work, if you don’t hit it off with your boss, it’s going to be very difficult to receive an excellent review.  If your boss doesn’t like you, chances are, other people (including their leader), will know and, regardless of how talented you are, there will inevitably be skepticism about the value you bring.  Your boss is also the one who will oversee your review and, you guessed it, if they don’t like you, your review will suffer.  It’s almost inevitable that one day you’ll end up reporting to someone you don’t like.  If you’re basing your worth on your performance review AND you’re already miserable because of your boss, you’re signing yourself up for a fast slope into depression.

2. You’re in the wrong field or position

On average, people hold just over 12 jobs throughout their career.  And it’s common to start in one field out of college and then move into a completely different field down the road when you learn more about what you like and don’t like. I’ve also worked with several clients who stayed in the a field that they didn’t particularly like because the money was so good (here’s an article to help you think through that if you can relate).  If you stay in a job/industry that you don’t like, inevitably your performance will suffer and again, your “grade card” or performance review will likely reflect this. If your worth is wrapped up in their external validation, you’ll find it difficult to muster the energy to make a change.

3. Your results may not be visible enough

I’ve worked with a number of people who have made it to senior manager or director level based on their ability to hit individual contributor goals but then their career stalled.  This usually happens because they either weren’t properly trained in management skills (read: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There) and therefore, didn’t excel in the new required skillset, or they just had not yet mastered the skill of self-promotion.  Don’t ever assume that people know what you’re doing, it’s important to find ways to gain visibility (a good manager will help you with this.  But if you’re not used to being a self-promoter and you have a crappy manager, watch out…).  Again, you may be doing a FANTASTIC job but if no one can see your work, your performance review will suffer.

4. People are busy/focused on the wrong things

I can’t tell you how many of the clients I’ve worked with (including myself when I was working in corporate) who were craving some kind of pat on the back from their management.  They neededsome acknowledgement that they were doing a good job, that they were valued, that their hard work was seen and appreciated. But here’s the thing: people are really busy.  And unfortunately, while we all crave a compliment from time to time, EQ is, sadly, often neglected in the corporate world.  In fact, global studies reveal that 79% of people who quit their jobs cite “lack of appreciation” as their reason for leaving.  So, if you’re waiting for someone at work to tell you that you’re doing a good job and you’re not working in a culture/for a boss who’s embraced good management behavior, you may be waiting a looooong time and eventually, start to think that something is wrong with you. Don’t let this impact your feelings of self-worth.

Have I convinced you yet to detach from using external validation at work?

The Result of Imposter Syndrome

If you’re constantly in a negative headspace and questioning your self-worth, it’s inevitable that this will manifest externally. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome report receiving less promotions, they take less risks, and they garner less respect from others (people can smell a lack of confidence).  The irony about this is you may be the best person in your respective field but if you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll never reach your full potential. If you’ve made it this far as an executive, you’ve put some great tools in place. But if you do suffer from imposter syndrome and you’re an executive, in order to be a great leader and keep progressing in your career, it’s important to work to overcome your negative self narrative.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome 

  1. The first step towards overcoming imposter syndrome is to realize if you’re prone to it.  The fact that you’re reading this blog already indicates that you are on your way to recognizing it in yourself or in someone you care about. Props to you for making headway on this often-painful syndrome.
  2. Once you recognize that you’re prone to imposter syndrome, start to identify ways in which in manifests in your life.  Keep a journal or jot some notes down in your phone when you find yourself putting down your abilities, trying to push harder than everyone else around you to make up for something you feel like you are missing (note: working hard in itself is not a sign of imposter syndrome.  It’s the emotion that accompanies the hard work that is key). 
  3. Ask yourself some key questions like:
    1. What core beliefs do I hold about myself and my abilities?
    1. Do I believe I am worthy of love/acceptance/approval as I am?
    1. Must I be perfect for others to approve of me?
  4. Once you identify some key areas where you want to heal, actively work on a plan to address these toxic thoughts.  For example, you may want to proactively replace a demotivating thought like, “I don’t deserve this recognition” with “I worked hard and I’m going to take a moment to celebrate my success.”
  5. Once you’ve put time and effort into reprogramming your thoughts, check in every few weeks or months to ensure you don’t slip back into old, unhealthy habits.

One final note- I’ve found through my experience as a coach that imposter syndrome is oftentimes tied to a sense of control.  If you don’t believe in yourself, you often feel like things are happening to you and you have little or no control on your environment.  While it’s true that you can’t control the actions of others, the one thing you CAN control is your thought process.  Wouldn’t you like to optimize your self image so you can build a more fulfilling life?  The fact that you’re reading this blog tells me that you are taking steps to do so already. I believe in you.

Ready to uncover the right next step in your career?

Sign up for my career management email course

"After working with Amy, I feel confident that I know what I am meant to do, what my career goals are, and how I am going to achieve them. Read more."

Leslie, VP of Marketing at a Tech Company
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap