Perception Overrides Reality
“You’re fired! You’re incompetent!”
“You are a fraud and a fake.”
“Did you really think you couldfool people for the rest of your life?”
As Published in Coaching World
These are the words that many professionals fear will be directed at them at any moment. As a result of this threat, confidence, risk-taking and focus are jeopardized, potentially stalling career advancement and satisfaction. These are the hallmarks of what Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., coined as the Impostor Phenomenon (IP) in 1974. IP is a feeling that high achievers experience when they deny that their accomplishments are “real,” or based on their actual skills and abilities. Instead, they attribute their success to external factors, such as luck, timing and the generosity of others. As an Executive Coach, I often hear clients express fears about their abilities, despite remarkable success in their careers. I listened to Larry proclaim his fear that it was only a matter of time before “they” realized he was nowhere near as bright, capable or talented as he had led them to believe. Anita was certain that she had achieved the position of chief operating officer only because she knew how to be charming. “I charmed them all,” she told me. “What happens when the charm doesn’t seem charming to them anymore? I know I won’t be able to pull it off.” Jerry began to suffer panic attacks daily, fearing that intellectual inferiority would end his career. “And I have four children to take care of. I’m waking up every night sweating, with my heart pounding. I keep thinking I’m having a heart attack and can’t tell my wife. I’m in over my head, and think maybe I should look for another position at a lower level.”
Other common statements (and selftalk) include:
- “Sooner or later they will realize I’m a fake.”
- “How could I have fooled so many people for so long?”
- “What will I do when they discover that I don’t really know what I’m doing?”
These comments demonstrate that feelings of being an impostor persist in the 21st century. Even the comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres has commented, “All of us, whether we are in [show] business or not, have little voices that tell us we’re not good enough, and we don’t deserve it.”
Through my own research on IP, I identified the three most-common workplace behaviors associated with IP: avoidance, over-preparation, and procrastination. Each negatively impacts productivity and engagement, and careers can be derailed by these symptoms.
Your client may believe that avoiding specific tasks or situations will reduce the likelihood of being “discovered” as an impostor. Tactics include everything from making excuses about her workload to claiming illness. In some cases, individuals will make valuable contributions to a project, but only if they can do so behind the scenes. This way, if less-than-adequate performance is revealed, it will be attributed to the team instead of the individual.
Immediate impacts of procrastination include missed deadlines and sub-par work. Over time, a habitual procrastinator’s colleagues and superiors are likely to make assumptions about her intentions, even labeling her as “lazy” or “careless.” As a result, she may be excluded from key projects or passed over for promotions.
The tendency to over-prepare can be as incapacitating as avoidance or procrastination. Chronic overpreparers are perceived by others as “perfectionists,” in that they’ll work a project over and over, striving for perfection and insisting that there’s always more to be done. Consequences of overpreparation include inefficiency, misappropriation of effort, decreased productivity and, often, conflict in workplace relationships.
IP Success Strategies
When a client displays signs of IP, the first and most important step you can take as her coach is to put the phenomenon in context and let her know that she’s not alone. IP is common among existing and emerging business leaders, but clients often feel isolated in their experience of it, believing that they’re experiencing something unique and nameless. Assuring clients that they are far from alone is essential. Coaches can be most helpful to clients by recognizing and naming the phenomenon for what it is, sharing how common it is, and creating awareness around ways to reduce or eliminate symptoms. Through the interviews I conducted during my research, I identified six strategies your clients can use as they strive to move away from IP and toward a new view of themselves.
1. Recall prior experiences of recognized success.
Many IP clients are able to identify current or past experiences with what they perceive as “real” success. For example, one of the research respondents I interviewed was plagued with insecurity about his career, but very confident in his abilities as a father. When his thoughts about his career would spiral downward, he’d settle his emotions by repeating “I am a good father,” over and over. He said he was amazed at the positive results of this affirmative self-talk.
2. Get moving!
Staying in one place provides fertile ground for IP thought patterns to take hold. Whether your client heads outside for a run, joins an exercise class at her gym or simply takes up a hobby, such as gardening or woodworking, she’ll benefit not only from the activity itself, but from the spatial change. Clients have reported that simply moving from one location to another (i.e., from room to room or across the office) can change their perspective and thinking on an issue.
3. Call upon spiritual beliefs.
Clients who engage in some form of spiritual practice can draw on their beliefs as they strive to defeat selfdoubt and silence negative self-talk. For example, one client reported that prayer provided her the solace she needed to begin changing her thinking about how to interpret the consistently positive feedback she was getting at work.
4. Use Your Body to Change Your Thinking.
During a 2012 TED Talk titled “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggested that we can create insecurity or confidence by the way we hold ourselves, sit, stand and raise our hands. Many IP clients find that exploring their nonverbal communication reveals personal and professional insecurities. Awareness and practice are essential to changing physical behaviors; this, in turn, can change thinking. Invite clients to practice different postures, gestures and expressions. Start with the smile: Ask your client to force a smile and hold it for ten seconds. When she relaxes the smile, ask what she thinks and feels. Thinking drives emotions and emotions drive behavior. Simple changes in our bodies create a change in thinking.
5. Honor past compliments.
Encourage clients to keep a “kudos” file; i.e., an archive of emails and other documentation of words of praise for their accomplishments. They can refer to this tangible record during times of self-doubt and replace their negative self-talk with the positive statements contained therein. Over time, this can decrease the frequency and intensity of IP thought patterns.
6. Breathe deeply.
As clients tune into their IP behaviors, many recognize accompanying changes in breathing patterns. One client I interviewed realized that he’d hold his breath during tense conversations, while another became aware of taking quick, short breaths during times of stress. Encourage clients to be mindful of these physiological stress symbols and make a concerted effort to shift to deep breaths from the diaphragm. IP is more prevalent in our clients than many of us realize. To some extent, it’s even a natural part of career progression, especially for clients who are promoted into senior roles more quickly than expected. If a client’s comments during coaching sessions suggest that she is questioning her worthiness, in or out of the workplace, use powerful questions (e.g., “Do you believe others think you’re more talented than you do?”; “To what do you attribute your success?”) to identify whether IP might be at work. Putting a name to the phenomenon and supporting our clients as they identify strategies for moving beyond it are crucial steps in helping our clients see themselves as we see them: resourceful, whole individuals who are in the driver’s seat of their professional and personal lives.