Are You a Management Imposter?

Last Updated May 9, 2008 10:33 PM EDT

Are You a Management Imposter?Do you feel as if you are pulling the wool over the eyes of your workmates, hiding your incompetence? You are not alone. There is even a name for it:

Imposter Syndrome.

Management consultant Gill Corkindale takes up the subject of business professionals with a sense of inadequacy in a blog post on Harvard Business.

I have come across many instances of Imposter Syndrome among my coaching clients in recent years. Typically, they are managers on fast-track careers in their late 30s or early 40s who have been promoted to a new role in which their experience is being tested to the limits. Despite support from their bosses and feedback showing they have great operational, strategic and people skills, they often seem beset with doubts.
She says that high-achieving women can be particularly susceptible.

Promoting Peter Some would argue that you may well be an imposter. Remember the Peter Principle? It's the idea that everyone rises to the level of their incompetence. In other words, you are promoted based on your capabilties, but eventually promoted one more time -- to a level where you are not capable. And there you sit.

But Corkindale is talking about truly capable people who nevertheless feel they are not up to the challenges of their job, a kind of executive inferiority complex. What to do about it? Here are several of the suggestions she puts forward:

  • Consider the context "Most people will experience moments or occasions where they don't feel 100 percent confident. There may be times when you feel out of your depth and self-doubt can be a normal reaction. If you catch yourself thinking that you are useless, reframe it: 'the fact that I feel useless right now does not mean that I really am.'"
  • Rewrite your mental programs "Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don't deserve success, remind yourself that it's normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress."
  • Visualize your success. "Keep your eye on the outcome -- completing the task or making the presentation, which will keep you focused and calm."
If you have these feelings, check out the responses to her blog on Harvard Business. Clearly you are not alone. I particularly like the comment by one reader who says Imposter Syndrome is not necessarily a bad thing:
Only those who are humble and modest suffer the self doubt Gill defines rightly as imposter syndrome. In business in recent years such qualities have been seen as flaws. I am happy to see a shift back to better values.
How prevalent is Imposter Syndrome in your workplace? Are you afflicted?

(Imposter image by Elsie esq., CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.