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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Martina [name changed] leads the European sales team for a global tech company. Since her promotion to this position less than a year ago, the company has seen unprecedented growth and improved customer satisfaction. Still, she cannot shake the feeling that she has not earned this accomplishment. “Maybe my team could have done this without me. What if the executive team realizes that too?”

If Martina’s concerns sound familiar, it may be because “imposter syndrome” is a universal experience. Fortunately, it is possible to overcome imposter syndrome and learn to embrace success.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

“My father says my accomplishments are impressive, friends and colleagues pat me on the back, and I’m proud of what we are achieving,” Martina said. “I fight hard for better compensation for my team. So why am I always looking for the reasons that I don’t deserve that aggressive raise, that recognition? Why don’t I believe in myself as surely as everyone else seems to?”

Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes came up with the term “Imposter Phenomenon” (IP) in the 1970s. The American Psychological Association explains that IP is seen in high achievers who feel their accomplishments are undeserved. They worry that, sooner or later, others will “unmask them as a fraud.”

Imposter syndrome is more common than not. According to the Behavioral Science Research Institute, an estimated 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome.

If it is any comfort, even wildly successful people admit to feeling like an imposter. Quoting from her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Fast Company points to Sheryl Sandberg as one example: “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself.”

People who experience imposter syndrome question their value. They may think:

  • I’m not good enough for this job.
  • Someone must have made a mistake hiring me.
  • I do not belong here. Someone is going to figure that out.
  • I do not deserve that praise (promotion, raise, etc.).
  • It was just luck.
  • I am not that talented.
  • Anyone could have done the same thing.

Is Imposter Syndrome Holding You Back?

Imposter syndrome is a common workplace occurrence, showing up as a feeling that you do not really have what it takes. It is an experience shared across ages, industries, gender and race. It prevents people from pitching amazing ideas and going after jobs in which they might shine.

Imposter syndrome often drives people to work harder. But overcompensating can lead to unrealistic expectations and burnout. Imposter syndrome can also interfere with career growth and earnings. Consider employee performance reviews. How can you get paid what you are worth if you cannot communicate the value you deliver?

For those in management positions, imposter syndrome can interfere with the ability to lead a team. Think about it: At a basic level, effective leadership means motivating others to do their best. For this to happen, managers must overcome any doubts they might have about their own ability. 

How Can You Conquer Imposter Syndrome?

Educator Elizabeth Cox tackles imposter syndrome in her TED Talk “What Is Imposter Syndrome and How Can You Combat It?” She mentions Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein as highly successful people who, despite their significant accomplishments, did not think they had earned their success.

It is possible to replace fears of fraudulence with the confidence to believe in yourself:

  • Embrace feedback, including suggestions for improvement.
  • Accept compliments. Remember what it is you do well.
  • Stop being afraid to take healthy risks. Learning comes from successes and failures.
  • Have open conversations about academic or professional challenges. Just knowing that a mentor or peer has had those same feelings of self-doubt can help.
  • Be honest about achievements. Remind yourself: “I have what it takes.” “I’ve got this.”

Martina’s story has a happy ending. Shortly after learning about imposter syndrome, she decided to revisit a recent decision by her boss about compensation, one that did not go her way. Martina realized that she tended to doubt her value to the company. With newfound confidence, she restated her case for that raise. This time, her boss readily agreed to a significant increase in compensation.

To succeed and advance in any career requires a certain level of competence. For business professionals seeking management positions and executive roles, earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is one way to build expertise and banish any nagging thoughts of shortcomings.

Emporia State University offers an online MBA that prepares graduates with the confidence and credentials they need to enjoy broader career options and a higher earning potential. By also developing awareness of imposter syndrome, they can help the team members they lead overcome feelings of inadequacy and achieve their true potential.

Learn more about Emporia State University’s online MBA program.


American Psychological Association: Feel Like a Fraud?

Behavioral Science Research Institute: The Impostor Phenomenon

Fast Company: It’s Not Just You: These Super Successful People Suffer From Imposter Syndrome

TED: What Is Imposter Syndrome and How Can You Combat It?

Interview with Sales Manager of a global tech company, 10/19/18

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