Is Impostor Syndrome Real?

I have my doubts about Impostor Syndrome. And I worry about women leaders who carry that label around with them.

“Oh, I have that,” is a common refrain when Impostor Syndrome is mentioned among women leaders. Despite advanced degrees and impressive accomplishments, many of these women readily own this diagnosis, which might be the only negative in the lexicon that leaders voluntarily accept.  Doing this can become a hindrance to a woman leader’s self-view and career trajectory. For some, it becomes yet another perceived problem to solve before they can tackle whatever’s really getting in their way. For others, it simply clouds their self-understanding and causes them to hold themselves back.

Originally coined as the Impostor Phenomenon by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978, the current definition of Impostor Syndrome varies as widely as the number of articles and books written on the topic. Most recently, I read an article about chefs with Impostor Syndrome. However, most articles still carry remnants of the original definition: despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people who say they have Impostor Syndrome worry they are frauds and fear failure.

In recent years, I have spoken with hundreds of women across the globe in workshops and coaching sessions about Impostor Syndrome. As I have looked out over packed ballrooms and Zoom meetings, it has become clear to me that all of these women cannot possibly have entered the workplace believing they were fakes, frauds, or incompetents. In fact, when the women in my programs shared their work concerns, none mentioned any of the hallmarks of the original definition of Impostor Phenomenon.

In my twenty-five-year career as an executive coach, only two male clients have said they might have Impostor Syndrome and that was only after hearing I was speaking on the topic. And both were startup rock stars iterating as they went along. Other men have shared their anxieties but have not talked about being impostors.

So, what if you don’t really have Impostor Syndrome? What if something else is causing you to doubt yourself or worry you’re under-qualified? Here are some of the related (but different) core issues women talk about when they bring up Impostor Syndrome and the matching solutions for these issues.

You Are Unfamiliar With The Political Playbook

All women leaders understand that political games are played at work, but they may not know the rules of these games or how to win them. Without a playbook, they may find themselves a step behind or worse, off the team. Just before the pandemic closed down in-person events, one of my clients was at a dinner where two senior male colleagues were advising a third male colleague how to manage his challenging relationship with his boss. While my client found the conversation interesting, she didn’t realize the same advice applied to her relationship with the same boss. When a re-organization occurred, the male colleague who had shifted his behaviors kept his job, and she did not.

I advise all of my coaching clients to develop the ability to diagnose organizational dynamics and develop associated action plans. These skills are not taught in school; you usually learn them on the job. It’s also important to build a robust network of peers and mentors who can serve as advisers as soon as complex interpersonal problems arise.

You Need To Up Your Skill Level And Experience

Women who say they “have” Impostor Syndrome are often referring to the anxiety they experience when they enter a new job, particularly if the role is a stretch. In our hectic workplaces, there is little time to learn but plenty of pressure to get up to speed yesterday.

When I spoke at a women’s professional conference, one of the attendees shared that she had been promoted three times over the course of two years. This meant she had to get to know three different teams and three different roles under three different bosses in short periods of time. She never had a chance to get her bearings in any of the roles, which kept her job satisfaction low and her anxiety high while her performance continued to be exceptional. If I had been her coach, I would have advised her to consider saying “no” to at least one of those new roles so she could gain experience and cement her skills.

If you find yourself promoted without the necessary competencies or experience, do a quick analysis of any skills this new job will require of you. What courses can you take? Who can help you learn and get up to speed quickly? Most people feel anxious in a brand-new job. This does not make you an impostor. It simply means you need more skills and experience.

You Aren’t Receiving Specific Developmental Feedback

Despite increased focus on improving feedback systems in recent years, many leaders still struggle to get concrete input on what they’re already doing well and what more they must do to advance. Without positive or constructive feedback, they may judge themselves as lacking without any evidence. In fact, many of the women I coach minimize their skills and accomplishments due to this lack of feedback. Since they have no way to “benchmark” themselves against other leaders inside or outside of their companies, they are left to imagine the worst.

To develop as a leader, you must push for detailed feedback from your boss and from a wide range of colleagues to give you a full picture of how you are regarded. In addition, I advise all of my coaching clients to interview outside their organizations at least once a year to ensure they know their true value in the marketplace. This interview experience often provides the input and perspective you need to understand your strengths and points of differentiation, even if your direct supervisors fail to provide it. And you might find yourself with a great job offer!

You Don’t Have A Squad

Owning Impostor Syndrome can be a lonely experience. Who do you talk to when you feel uncertain about your performance in your current job? Who do you call when you’re wondering if you should apply for a great new position that someone else might do better? Only when women talk about Impostor Syndrome with their advisers, close colleagues, or at my workshops do they begin to get valuable perspective on what they are actually experiencing. They see that they are not impostors, they’re just isolated. Even those who work among others may feel this way, and they need the support and encouragement of peers, bosses, mentors, and sponsors to discuss concerns and make big moves.

Leave Impostor Syndrome Behind

Put your oxygen mask on first. Sleeping on a regular schedule will work wonders for your energy and spirt. If you can safely walk outside with social distance, get some fresh air and activate your endorphins. Find what distracts you: video games, loud or quiet music, trying a new recipe, viewing exhibits of museums on line. Eat in a healthy way while allowing yourself some comfort food.

Maintain Your Personal Contacts

While most of us are working from home and our socializing is limited, it is helpful to stay in touch with others. Schedule a happy hour/coffee hour on-line with a friend. Make sure to connect via text, email, or phone with at least one or two people every day. One of my friends is in several book clubs and one of her groups will be holding their next meeting on one of the video platforms.

Remember That It Won’t Always Be Like This

Several years ago, when a close relative was ill with a painful undiagnosed illness, a friend told me something I have never forgotten: “It won’t always be like this.” Of course, that didn’t take away the problem that day but it gave me hope for the future. When your fear is increasing, try making this your mantra.

Talk To Someone

Some women leaders truly may actually suffer from intrusive anxiety and would benefit from the guidance of a coach or therapist.  However, for many women who have diagnosed themselves with Impostor Syndrome, it would be worthwhile to realize that your own feelings of uncertainty might stem from something other than something is wrong with you, especially when “normal self-doubt” and “deep-seated fear that you’re a fraud” are such different experiences. If you realize your own feelings of uncertainty might stem from something other than Impostor Syndrome, focus on identifying the actual issue. From there, you can problem-solve and move forward, affording you greater freedom, career satisfaction, and energy to devote to building your future.

Sharon Dougherty
CEO, Priority Coaching

What I Am Reading: From Poker To Executive Presence

My clients often ask me what I am reading and what podcasts I am listening to.
Here are a few gems I can’t stop thinking about—and discussing with clients and

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. Maria
Konnikova is a psychologist who decided she wanted to become a world class
poker player. She hired a poker “coach” and entered professional poker circuit
games around the country—losing often in the beginning and then gradually
earning money as she studied her new craft. This is a fascinating book about her
journey and her learnings way beyond poker—decision making, understanding
biases, recognizing “tells,” when to go “all in” and when to sit tight. And how to
recover from making mistakes. Maria is a terrific writer and you will want to
continue reading her fascinating story just to find out if she wins big.

The Long Game: How To Be A Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World. Author
Dorie Clark occupies a unique space in the marketing/coaching world as a
marketing guru for entrepreneurs who wish to become, in Dorie’s words,
“recognized experts.” Her advice to entrepreneurs expands to those in the
corporate and non-profit world as well. In The Long Game, Dorie’s fifth book, she
writes about how to achieve big goals through small steps, intermediate wins, and
what she terms “strategic patience.” Dorie illustrates the long game with inspiring
stories about friends, colleagues, and herself.

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.                          Much of my coaching work involves helping clients make significant
changes in their lives. Some approach change with enthusiasm and make shifts
easily. Others hold onto their current state as tightly as they can despite feeling
miserable. From her award-winning research, Katy Milkman, professor at The
Wharton School, writes about why timing can mean everything when it comes to
making change. She also shares that giving advice, even if it is in an area you are
having trouble with, can help you achieve your goals.

For those of you who would prefer shorter reads, I suggest the articles of
Herminia Ibarra, currently the Charles Handy Professor of
Business at the London School of Economics. Many of her articles can be found in
the Harvard Business Review, including her award-winning article, “The Leader As
Coach.” I have sent her recent HBR article, “Reinventing Your Career in the Midst
of Coronavirus,” to many clients. Even if you don’t want to make a job switch, her
thoughts about making change in the middle of this pandemic are invaluable.

Finally, my favorite business podcast is WorkLife with Adam Grant. Adam, who
coined the pandemic term “languishing,” covers a wide range of workplace issues
that concern all of us. His recent guests have included Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman.
An impressive guest this year was Mellody Hobson, the co-CEO of Ariel
Management and the Chairwoman of Starbucks. While the topic is feedback,
Mellody offers lessons in executive presence, sharing your message, and
answering interview questions in just the right amount of words and thoughts.

How To Get Your Mojo Back

Are you feeling tired, uninspired, and overwhelmed at work? You might be overworked,
burned out, or fed up with this seemingly never-ending pandemic. Or, in the case of three new
clients who reached out to me this month, you may have lost your mojo, your unique power
that ensures your success.

How do you lose your mojo? There can be many reasons, both professional and personal. The
mojo dwindling for my clients was precipitated by a change in job responsibilities. Each had
earned a significant promotion to a job of immense responsibility and visibility. Unfortunately,
all three leaders now had to do more of the work they didn’t enjoy and much less of the work
that gave them energy. One new Sales Vice-President loved her sales role and enjoyed being
the voice of the company at outside events. Her promotion brought a huge increase in
operational tasks and a dramatic reduction in interpersonal exchanges. She found this change
so intolerable she was considering a move to another company.

What can make these work shifts particularly onerous is when there is no end in sight. Most
leaders are willing to take on new responsibilities outside their scope if that means a short-term
assignment. But if they now have two jobs, or if their once enjoyable work has transformed
into misery, their enthusiasm for their work declines and this affects their productivity, their
relationships, their success, and even their home life. They feel stuck and can’t see the way

How to Get Your Mojo Back and Thrive

If you want to recover your mojo, here are steps you can take.

The first step is to be kind to yourself and practice self-care. Those who have lost their mojo
often feel physically and mentally depleted.

The second step is to take a close look at how you are spending your time and energy. Make a
chart with several columns and answer the following questions.

  • What are your major job responsibility categories? E.g., operations, sales, people
    development, revenue strategy, business development, etc.
  • What percentage of your time do you typically spend on each category each week?
  • Note how you feel about each responsibility. One of my clients chose the following
    adjectives: Enjoy, Like, Tolerate, Dislike, or Hate.
  • Put an asterisk next to the job responsibility you could do all day.

Now assess what you said about yourself in the chart. People who have lost their mojo often
see a tremendous imbalance between the work that they love and the work they have to do.
After you review your chart, consider how you can readjust your work load and work
responsibilities to increase your happiness and satisfaction with your job. Your first reaction
might be “There’s no way I can make any changes. That’s impossible.” If that was your
response, I would encourage you to just answer these questions as a theoretical exercise and
see where the answers take you.

  • What work would you love to do more of? How can you do that? What small first step
    can you take? How would you and your company benefit?
  • What work do you absolutely have to keep on your plate? Can you delegate part of that
    work to others? Those who have lost their mojo are often overloaded with work and
    need more help. Others need colleagues with a specific expertise.
  • What work can you easily give to someone else? Who might even like that assignment?
  • For the job responsibilities you dislike but need to keep, how can you manage those
    differently? E.g., can you do that work for a specific amount of time at a certain time of
    day so it is manageable? Would it help to have a colleague to work with on those
    projects with you?

Finally, plan how you can increase the parts of your job that you love. Even small changes will
make a difference. A published author, one of my clients had given up all her public speaking
engagements due to her new role. To get her mojo back, she let it be known that she was open
to speaking opportunities, even to small audiences. Another client began looking for a COO
who could take over the daily operations of the company while he focused on all external

Losing one’s mojo can occur gradually but when the tank is empty, it is empty.
Taking the time to examine what has changed in your job and what you need to shift will have a
big payoff in happiness, job satisfaction, and career success.