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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Oct 25, 2019


Chances are that you will suffer from impostor syndrome at some point in your life. In this episode we explore what impostor syndrome is, why it occurs, and nine ways we can avoid feeling like a fraud.



Welcome to episode 57 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re looking at impostor syndrome - what it is, why it occurs, and nine ways we can avoid feeling like a fraud.


What is impostor syndrome?

Put simply, impostor syndrome is the fear of being exposed as a fraud - that we lack the capability necessary for the challenges we face, and are only avoiding being found out through hard work and luck.

Bryan Stewart says “The root of impostorism is thinking that people don't see you as you really are. We think people like us for something that isn't real and that they won't like us if they find out who we really are." We’ll look at Stewart’s research later.

Importantly, it’s not a disorder. No psychologist is ever going to give you a mental diagnosis of impostor syndrome. Rather it’s a reaction or response that falls in the normal range of human experience.

Studies vary, however impostor syndrome is thought to impact 70% of people across their life. That is, the majority of people at some point feel like a fraud. In Stewart’s study 20% of university students felt very strong feelings of impostorism at any one point in time.


How does impostor syndrome work?

The researcher Clance outlines what she calls an impostor cycle. The cycle starts with an achievement-based task. It might be a project, assignment or new responsibility. This is followed by feelings of anxiety, worry and doubt. The individual with impostor syndrome then typically takes one of two possible paths. The first is the ‘hard work’ path - this is a period of over-preparation and frantic work. The second potential path is a period of procrastination and avoidance. There’s a sense of relief once the challenge is completed. Those who took the hard work path will then put any positive outcome down to over-preparation rather than ability. Those who took the procrastination path will put any positive outcome is down to luck. In both cases, even a positive outcome and feedback is seen as further evidence of a lack of personal ability, and so the cycle continues.


What’s the impact on the person and performance of impostor syndrome?

Well, there’s the anxiety, fear and self-doubt that accompany new challenges and opportunities. And there’s often a reluctance to put your hand up for even greater challenges and opportunities. After all, those challenges heighten the risk of being discovered as a fraud.


So what can you do to avoid impostor syndrome?

Here are 9 ideas:

  1. Reframe challenges as opportunities to learn and grow rather than as chances to be tested and ‘found out’. Bringing a growth mindset to challenges will help reduce anxiety and increase motivation.

  2. Establish an appropriate standard for your work. Perfectionism and impostor syndrome often co-exist. If your work is never good enough in your own eyes, then no wonder you feel like a fraud.

  3. Reach outside of the group where you feel a fraud. Research by Bryan Stewart and colleagues has demonstrated that seeking support from within the group where you feel like a fraud is generally negative and reinforces the sense of being a fraud, while reaching outside the group to family, friends and others is generally positive. Reaching outside where you feel like a fraud recalibrates your abilities.

  4. Stop comparing yourself to others. It’s tempting to select people at the top of their game as comparison points. Look to them as inspiration rather than as a benchmark of where you should be. After all, everyone’s journey is different, and you will have your own strengths that even your idols lack.

  5. Keep a note of all the positive feedback you receive. When you receive positive feedback just say ‘thank you’. Don’t question it, just transfer it to a note or folder where you can review it when you face a future challenge.

  6. Name it to tame it. Most people have impostor syndrome at some point. It’s a normal part of human experience, and it’s harmful not helpful. Calling it out for what it is can help you to be proactive in reframing your thoughts and approach.

  7. Seek feedback on your approach and performance. Find some trusted people who can give you balanced feedback on your performance. We all need a cheer squad in life, but it needs to be a cheer squad that we trust to provide both positive and constructive feedback.

  8. Be kind to yourself. There’s a classic piece of research that demonstrated people are more compliant when administering medication to their dogs than they are at being compliant with their own medication. We’re often not kind and compassionate to ourselves. Give yourself a bit of a break and treat yourself the way you would treat a friend.

  9. Celebrate development and progress. We often don’t take the chance to reflect on just how far we’ve come. Ask yourself “What can I do now that I couldn’t do a year ago?”. Write out a list of strengths and achievements from the past year.


Is impostor syndrome something you’ve struggled with? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Contact me via the website, and use the connect link.



Clance, P.R. (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success (p. 25). Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.

Richard G. Gardner, Jeffrey S. Bednar, Bryan W. Stewart, James B. Oldroyd, Joseph Moore. “I must have slipped through the cracks somehow”: An examination of coping with perceived impostorism and the role of social support. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2019; 115: 103337 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2019.103337