Are we all imposters now?

September 30, 2020

A recent survey on LinkedIn suggested that the pandemic has caused an outbreak of Imposter Syndrome among senior leaders. Apparently 52% of the leaders surveyed have found themselves doubting their ability to lead their organisations through this crisis. I wasn’t surprised by this – who can really say that they know what they’re doing right now? The only people who’ve lived through a pandemic are now over 100 and they were children last time round. No one has experience of this. So are we all imposters now?

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is more than just self-doubt. It’s that pervasive feeling that you aren’t really up to the job and sooner or later, you’ll be exposed as a fraud. Unsurprisingly, it’s more likely to affect people who are in a minority. If you’re the only woman/working class person/non-graduate/person of colour in your leadership team, it’s more likely (though not inevitable) that you’ll question your place there. Any self-doubt will feed into a sense that you don’t belong. This is less likely to happen if everyone at a senior level looks like you and has a similar background. That doesn’t mean that middle-class white men are immune to imposter syndrome, though. It can affect anyone whose self-image hasn’t caught up with their level of success. In a crisis, those who already feel a fraud are likely to experience more self-doubt. But it’s not all bad news.

In praise of self-doubt

Self-doubt can be difficult to deal with but let’s contrast it with its opposite. People with a huge sense of entitlement, who believe that people like them are meant to be in charge (Old Etonians who grew up wanting to be King of the World, for example), seem to experience very little self-doubt, regardless of competence. I see no evidence of self-doubt emanating from the White House or, indeed, the HQ of Wetherspoons. There are many leaders who would benefit from a little self-doubt or, at least, a healthy dose of self-reflection. So if you find yourself beset by doubts, at least be reassured that it indicates a degree of humility. There’s something constructive you can do too:

Work out what you think you lack

If you’re doubting yourself, you’ve decided that you lack something which is vital to the job. What people often do is generalise this doubt – “I don’t know if I’m up to it”; “I’m not sure I can do this”. If you find yourself thinking like this, it’s worth adding “because I lack…” to the end of the sentence. The wording is important, as it stops you falling into the trap of saying “because I’m useless”. If you do get to the stage of thinking you’re useless, you may find this post on taming your inner critic helpful.

Once you’ve got specific, you can get a more objective assessment of yourself, possibly by getting some feedback from people you trust. You may be judging yourself too harshly or you could be right about your shortcomings but able to find a way around them.

It’s worth exploring a few categories of things you could be lacking:

Lack of experience

No one has more than nine months’ experience of leading through a pandemic, so you’re not alone here. If you’re new to leadership, then this is a baptism of fire but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I recently coached someone who started his first ever MD role in January – running a care home chain. Nothing could have prepared him for what he faced in March and yet he handled it amazingly well. If you’re worried about lack of experience, be specific – experience of what, exactly? Managing teams remotely? Operating on reduced revenue? Navigating uncertainty? Map out what you’re comfortable with and where you feel less confident. Where could you get support on those areas?

Lack of knowledge

For some people, being the expert who knows more than others provides a sense of security. Not knowing the answer can be quite unsettling. In these uncertain times, you may need to get used to working with less knowledge and data than you are used to. Again, it helps not to generalise and get overwhelmed or confused by uncertainty. Work out what you know, what you don’t know and what reasonable assumptions you can make. My June blog post on coping with uncertainty has more detail. This may be an opportunity for you to develop your managerial judgement, rather than looking for the right answer.

Lack of resilience

Maybe your concern is not about your ability to do the job but your capacity to cope with the pressure. Perhaps it all feels too daunting, too anxiety-provoking. Maybe you’re not sure you have the stamina to see it through or the courage to take tough decisions. In this case, it’s worth working out what’s really bothering you (try not to catastrophise) and how likely it is that what you fear will actually happen. This four-step plan for taking control in a crisis may help. It’s also worth working out how you will take care of your mental and physical well-being. This is likely to include ensuring you get enough sleep, exercising regularly, taking breaks and knowing who to turn to for support.

So are we all imposters now?

Probably not in the truest sense. But anxiety and self-doubt are likely to be on the rise. Plenty of people are having to stretch themselves in ways they didn’t know they could, becoming more organised, more decisive, more self-sufficient or more tolerant of uncertainty. If you’d like some support to think through how you’re leading your organisation, do get in touch:

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  1. John Midgley October 6, 2020 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    Interesting. So many people judge success simply as being about making money. The pandemic has highlighted that it is about so much more and some will be found wanting.

  2. Michael Heath November 10, 2020 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    An excellent article, Caroline, full of great insights. This subject is very close to my heart after mentoring so many people who have suffered from ‘Imposterism’ in their career. This work inspired my online course, which can be found at:

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