Be­ing suc­cess­ful and feel­ing like a fraud

A fear of be­ing found out is the big grey ele­phant in the room for many man­agers

The Irish Times - Business - - FRONT PAGE - Olive Keogh

Get­ting to the top is the ul­ti­mate goal for most ca­reer-minded in­di­vid­u­als. But how many stop and con­sider what it might be like when they ac­tu­ally get there? The de­mands of the job are one thing – but there is also the whole psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of be­ing in charge.

Busi­ness lead­ers are usu­ally strong in­di­vid­u­als with con­sid­er­able self-be­lief. Lit­tle about their of­ten su­per-con­fi­dent be­hav­iour sug­gests they ever have had a mo­ment of doubt. But peel­ing back the façade re­veals a dif­fer­ent story. Im­poster syn­drome is never far from the sur­face, and it shows scant re­spect for rank.

Aus­tralian aca­demic and ex­pert on self-man­age­ment Hugh Kearns, who has been re­search­ing the phe­nom­e­non for more than 20 years, was in Dublin re­cently to ad­dress an au­di­ence at DCU. The au­thor of The Im­poster Syn­drome, he says suc­cess­ful peo­ple of­ten feel like frauds be­cause they be­lieve they have mis­rep­re­sented them­selves de­spite ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

“Im­poster syn­drome is when im­poster feel­ings be­come more per­sis­tent and have an im­pact on how you think, feel and be­have,” Kearns says. “Many of us are wait­ing for that tap on the shoul­der, or for some­one to come along and say, ‘We need to have a chat’.

“If you’ve ever had that feel­ing, you’re in good com­pany. Lots of peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence it. The feel­ings can be pow­er­ful, and the per­son may be con­vinced they are a fraud. What do Meryl Streep, Face­book chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Sh­eryl Sand­berg and No­bel Prize win­ner Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez have in com­mon? At var­i­ous stages they have all felt like frauds or im­posters who don’t have the skills or abil­i­ties other peo­ple think they have.”

Kearns says th­ese feel­ings of­ten have their ori­gins in child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences. Be­ing re­warded for be­ing perfect, grow­ing up with a fear of fail­ure, be­ing over­praised or even taught to fear suc­cess can all shape how we be­have as adults.

“For im­posters, mak­ing mis­takes is bad, very bad. It is the time when you risk be­ing ex­posed,” Kearns says. “So some­where along the line, you picked up the be­lief that mis­takes are not okay and, since mis­takes are a part of life, you have a prob­lem and feel like an im­poster.”

Ir­ra­tional fear

The neg­a­tive fall­out from the syn­drome can start when ex­ec­u­tives who are un­able to con­trol their of­ten ir­ra­tional fear of be­ing found out start act­ing de­fen­sively. In prac­tice, this can un­fold in ways that un­der­mine both their re­la­tion­ships with se­nior col­leagues and how their busi­ness is run.

For ex­am­ple, a man­ager who is scared of look­ing/sound­ing stupid may avoid frank con­ver­sa­tions and never get a true picture of what’s go­ing on. An­other ex­am­ple is some­one so wor­ried about un­der­achiev­ing that they con­sis­tently take poor risks. The flip side of this coin is the per­son so paral­ysed by their in­se­cu­ri­ties that they are com­pletely risk-averse.

The prob­lem with fear is that, left to fes­ter, it can get a grip. C-Suite ex­ec­u­tives (top man­agers whose ti­tles of­ten be­gin with “chief”) who are sup­posed to have all the an­swers can find it very dif­fi­cult to be vul­ner­a­ble and ut­ter the words “help” or “I don’t know”.

The idea of not be­ing in con­trol is anath­ema, so they put up a wall and get stuck in a cycle of poor de­ci­sion-mak­ing, over­work and per­fec­tion­ist nit-pick­ing that can ul­ti­mately ruin their busi­ness.

Men­tal health is­sues

On top of this they are stor­ing up po­ten­tial men­tal health is­sues if they never re­lax, and there is con­stant ten­sion be­tween how they see them­selves and how they por­tray their per­sona to oth­ers.

While many of us have deep-seated fears, Kearns sug­gests cut­ting our­selves some slack by ac­cept­ing that feel­ings are not facts.

“When you feel some­thing strongly, you are in­clined to be­lieve that is it true. But it may not be true. Cog­ni­tive be­havioural coach­ing can be a use­ful strat­egy for sort­ing out feel­ings and facts,” he says.

An­other self-help op­tion worth con­sid­er­ing is coach­ing or men­tor­ing, where fears can be ex­pressed in a non-judg­men­tal

The neg­a­tive fall­out from the syn­drome can start when ex­ec­u­tives, who are un­able to con­trol their of­ten ir­ra­tional fear of be­ing found out, start act­ing de­fen­sively

en­vi­ron­ment to a neu­tral lis­tener. Th­ese can be ei­ther per­sonal or pro­fes­sional fears, or both. If you are al­ready a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive, it may be worth seek­ing out an émi­nence grise, with first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the lone­li­ness that can go with the top job, to be your sound­ing post.

En­tirely nor­mal

Kearns’s advice is to re­lax and ac­cept that im­poster feel­ings are en­tirely nor­mal. He also sug­gests be­com­ing more self-aware and start­ing to recog­nise your im­poster mo­ments be­fore they sab­o­tage you. Judge your­self by ob­jec­tive stan­dards. Write down what you would con­sider to be a “win” on a given task, and whether you have mea­sured up. If you have, walk away and be pleased about it. Don’t start mov­ing the goal­posts.

Mis­takes are al­most guar­an­teed to lead to im­poster feel­ings, he says, so work on de­vel­op­ing a men­tal at­ti­tude that lets you fail – fume if it makes you feel bet­ter – and then move on.

And im­poster syn­drome doesn’t just af­fect se­nior ex­ec­u­tives, Kearns says. “It af­fects peo­ple at all lev­els, from new staff through to top man­agers. You’d imag­ine that as you get more se­nior it would go away but as staff get pro­moted the stan­dards and ex­pec­ta­tions keep get­ting raised – and so do the doubts.

“It’s quite com­mon when staff first get pro­moted to a man­age­rial role. They may have been very com­pe­tent in their front-line role but then they move into a new role where they may not be very com­pe­tent at the start.”

Some­where along the line, you picked up the be­lief that mis­takes are not okay and, since mis­takes are part of life, you have a prob­lem and feel like an im­poster

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