As we enter 2022, lots of us will be looking for ways to be more confident at work. But it’s easy to fall victim to the dreaded impostor syndrome. Wendi Cochrane, Head of HR at Magdalene shares her tips on managing and coping with just that and making sure that the ‘confident you’ carries on all year round.

What’s impostor syndrome?

Also called ‘perceived fraudulence’, impostor syndrome is when you doubt your ability despite your education, experience and achievements. In short, it’s when you feel like a fraud, even though you’re actually anything but.

If you’re suffering from impostor syndrome then it’s likely you’ll be feeling one or more of these:

  • that people are overestimating your skills
  • that everyone else is cleverer or more efficient than you
  • that your manager or other people you believe are important will realise you’re not as capable as they think you are
  • that all your successes are down to something other than yourself, like luck or a mistake.

Feeling like this can have a really negative effect on your confidence and sense of self. And it can, over time, create stress, anxiety and depression.

Who does it affect?

The good news is that if any of this is sounding familiar, don’t worry – impostor syndrome is actually very common. According to Dr Valerie Young, an expert on impostor syndrome, there are seven (perfectly good) reasons why any one of us might suddenly feel like an impostor:

  1. you were raised by humans
  2. you are, or have been a student
  3. you work, or have worked, in an organisational culture that feeds self-doubt
  4. you work alone
  5. you work in a creative field
  6. you are, or have been, a stranger in a strange land
  7. you represent your entire social group.

Impostor syndrome often manifests itself in these behaviours:

  1. over-preparation and hard work to avoid being ‘caught out’
  2. holding back
  3. keeping a low or ever-changing profile
  4. using charm to get approval
  5. procrastinating
  6. never finishing a job
  7. self-sabotage.

If any of these sound like you then you’re in good company – showbiz luminaries including Salma Hayek, Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Ryan Reynolds, Ellie Goulding and Olivia Colman have all admitted to suffering from impostor syndrome.

The five types of impostor

Dr Young believes that people who feel like impostors hold themselves to unrealistic (and often unattainable) standards. And she’s come up with five types of impostor which she calls ‘competence types’.

  1. The perfectionist

Perfectionists focus primarily on how they do things, often to the point where they demand perfection in every part of their lives.

Why do they feel like impostors? Because perfection isn’t a realistic goal for anyone. So perfectionists can often only think about the mistakes they made.

  1. The natural genius

Natural geniuses find it quick and easy to pick up new skills.

Why do they feel like impostors? When natural geniuses come across something that’s difficult to understand right away, or something they can’t do first time, they can feel like impostors.

  1. The expert

Experts want to know everything there is to know about something.

Why do they feel like impostors? If they don’t have all the answers. Even a minor lack of knowledge about something can make them feel like a failure.

  1. The rugged individualist (or soloist)

Individualists believe they can handle everything on their own.

Why do they feel like impostors? They see asking for help as a failure.

  1. The superhero

Superheroes want to succeed at every role they do, both at home and at work.

Why do they feel like impostors? If they fall short in any of their roles – whether that’s at work, as a parent, partner or friend, and so on – they feel like impostors.

How to manage and overcome impostor syndrome

Start by identifying your feelings – make a note of when you feel like a fraud, and the sensations that go along with that. Then take a moment to do some or all of the following.

  • Take a breath. If you find yourself spiralling with thoughts of ‘I’m not good enough', think about the difference between your feelings and reality. Name the feelings for what they are: impostor syndrome.
  • Make a list of your best bits. Jot down your successes and achievements, then refer back to them whenever you’re having a wobbly moment. Don’t write them off as good luck or someone else’s hard work. You’re here because you’re good at what you do.
  • Talk to someone. Have a chat with your manager, a colleague or a friend about how you’re feeling. Sharing your fears is a great way to realise that you’re not alone. If you’re not sure who to go to, try your HR department.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. Instead, try comparing yourself to an earlier version of you. Look at how far you’ve come, and everything you’ve achieved.
  • Accept compliments. If someone tells you you’ve done a great job, thank them and enjoy the moment. There’s no need for self-deprecation.
  • Have the courage to be imperfect. You’re not always going to get it right. Look at mistakes as a chance to learn.
  • Think about your personal values. What’s important to you – what do you stand for? Knowing this helps you understand what you have to offer, and what makes you uniquely you.

Using impostor syndrome to your advantage

Impostor syndrome doesn’t have to hold you back. You might never get rid of the negative feelings completely. But if you manage them in the right way, you can develop better self-awareness and empathy, and build confidence in your own abilities.

Looking for your next challenge?

If reading this has made you feel confident that you’re ready for something new, contact our consultants. We can help you with development opportunities as well as career moves.

[This piece is based on a presentation by Wendi Cochrane, Head of HR at Magdalene, a leading telecom services supplier. She delivered it at the final session of our 2021 HR Development programme.]


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