While many ambitious employees have no compunction about winging it in their roles and ‘blagging through’, despite limited degrees of competence, plenty of others who do in fact know their stuff and operate effectively are seized by the notion that they will somehow be exposed as frauds.

Such is the paradox of impostor syndrome, which – according to this recent article – manifests itself in a number of ways:

  • overwork;
  • downplaying or actively undermining one’s own achievements;
  • a pervasive fear of failure;
  • perceiving oneself as a fake, and
  • avoiding displays of confidence, for fear of jinxing positive trends.

In this 1 November piece at Entrepreneur.com, US tech leader Carl Fritjofsson – whose track record is certainly glowing – admits that even he suffers bouts of impostor syndrome. Fritjofsson suggests a number of defusing approaches, starting with just opening up to people about it.

“By talking to each other about these things,” he says, “you can really learn from each other, and you can really strengthen each other by it. Secondly, eliminate the fear of impostor syndrome – meaning the fear that you cannot do this thing, and that you are not capable of doing this thing. Because if you recognise that the impostor syndrome is there, and you realise that the fear is artificial, then you can start progressing, and understanding and really believing in yourself.” Fritjofsson also warns people not to compare themselves to others who they may hold in high esteem.

What other tactics can leaders can use to internalise their achievements and, in so doing, neutralise impostor syndrome and its toxic effects?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This is about confidence, and feeling deserving. And I think the only way you can counter those inner mutterings of ‘Do I deserve this… should I be here?’ is by being as certain as you can be – based on all the evidence around you – that you’re doing your best, working hard and acknowledging others for your success.

“In large organisations, everybody is working with, and depending upon, other people – and it’s the team members around you who contribute to your success. Be aware that those individuals who report to you may also be suffering from their own crises of confidence, thinking ‘Do I deserve this job?’ We so often talk of reassurance, feedback and praise as key motivators – but if you actually give them, and they define the way you manage your team, then they will be reflected back at you, with interest.”

Cooper notes that many managers are haunted by the spectre of the so-called Peter Principle, which holds that an individual’s workplace status is determined by their levels of incompetence, rather than competence. She points out: “This is, in many ways, an unhelpful notion with which to saddle leaders and managers, as it can be very undermining and demoralising. However, there are actually some constructive ways in which to question your ability: if you are wondering how you have landed a particular level of seniority or responsibility, then it’s an opportunity to step up.”

She explains: “The key to stepping up is to keep learning. There will always be scope for improvement. There’s always something new to learn. And you can always get that little bit better at what you do. But that doesn’t mean that the intrinsic superstructure of your abilities, which helped you get to where you are, is flimsy. Also, helping the people around you get better at what they do will support a collective, confidence-building effort. Impostor syndrome is very much an ‘I’-centric mentality, but if you shift that to more of a ‘we’ outlook, then your fears will diminish, and you will close that confidence gap between what you think you can do, and what you’ve been tasked to do.”

Cooper adds: “However senior we are, we all tend to forget how long it takes to learn how to do a new job. For the first few months, you’re building relationships with people that perhaps you haven’t even encountered before. So with every new person, project and opportunity, there’s a learning curve. Reassuring yourself that you’ve made it work before is very helpful – while never thinking you’re so experienced that you can merely gloss over the new learning experiences in front of you.

“There’s also much to be said for the motivation provided by simple gratitude, and taking an ‘It is what it is’ stance on your situation. You are where you are, there are certain things you have done that have earned you the right to be there, and be grateful that you have been recognised and rewarded in such an exciting way.”

For further thoughts on how to build self-awareness, check out these learning resources from the Institute