Career Corner: Is there an imposter in the office?

Career Corner: Is there an imposter in the office?

Esther Cavett, executive coach and formerly a law partner in the City, explains what imposter syndrome is and what we can do about it.

How many of us feel we are harbouring a horrible secret?  We don’t believe we deserve to be in our jobs.  Our achievements are pure luck.  We are actually total frauds and it is only a matter of time until we are found out….. 

This state of mind is known as ‘impostor syndrome’.  It can take a number of different forms determined by background and upbringing, inherent tendencies and current circumstances, as referred to next.

Things must be perfect
Perfectionists often set themselves impossibly high goals, and they are rarely if ever satisfied with their work. Perfectionists want a high degree of control over their environment. Perfectionists want to micromanage and will prefer to do a job than delegate it to someone who might mess it up.  To address this tendency, consider whether you could aim for something being ‘good enough’ rather than perfect.  

Nothing is ever good enough
Some people push themselves to try to justify their role, or the task they have been given, to try to prove they deserve their nice office and their regular pay cheque. These perfectionist imposters are often exhausted and do not in fact do as well as they could.  They need constant validation from others in order feel good about themselves. To address this, it is important to remind yourself that you are not your job, your job is only one aspect of what you do and who you are and is not a measure of your intrinsic worth as a person. If you are justly criticised by your boss, try not to take this as a personal slight.  Take little steps to change your harsh view of yourself to one which is more forgiving and flexible.  

Intolerance of anything but the best
Just like the perfectionist, the intolerant imposter has impossibly high internal standards.  The difference is that intolerant imposters expect to do things effortlessly at first attempt.  They don’t like taking part in games they might lose, and they avoid new challenges for fear of finding they can’t rise to the occasion.

To address these issues, it is worth getting feedback from colleagues and trusted friends on your performance—you might be pleasantly surprised.  Take small steps to develop a more balanced and realistic view of your skills and who you are as a person.

The need to be best
This kind of imposter feels constantly in danger of being exposed as not knowing enough. They constantly seek new qualifications in order to demonstrate that they have the proper skills for the job.  To combat this type of imposter syndrome, try to do some things ‘on the hoof’, relying on your own prior knowledge and experience, and see if things still work well enough.  

How can we overcome imposter syndrome?
The first step in alleviating the effects of imposter syndrome is to recognise it, and to reflect on the specific manifestation it is taking.  Try to take a more balanced and kinder view of yourself and your actions.  Sometimes talking to and getting honest feedback from a friend or trusted work colleague can help, sometimes it is good to seek the support of a career coach for work issues or possibly a counsellor (CBT trained is good) if the syndrome is causing you a large amount of distress. The vast majority of people experience some aspect of impostor syndrome in their adult lives, but a few simple interventions can really help. 

Esther Cavett is an executive coach, specialising in work and work-life balance matters and working with people experiencing change and transitions in their lives. Esther spent 20 years in the City, latterly as a partner in a magic-circle law firm and now divides her time between coaching and working as professional musician and musicologist.

Copyright Esther Cavett 2018

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Released On 4th Oct 2018

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