On the Clock

The Rise of Imposter Syndrome

Fear among leaders of not being good enough is quite common.

4 min read

Three weeks into her new job as the head of her medical group, Rebecca felt more than a little overwhelmed. There was a new patient triage computer system to learn, along with a slew of administrative paperwork. And that’s before she even tried to delve into managing people who used to be her cohorts. When asked by a friend how her gig was going, she texted, “I’m experiencing some intense imposter syndrome. But that’s just the deal with a new job, I think.”

Only a few years ago, the term wouldn’t have been thrown around in text message, let alone in conversation. But “imposter syndrome”—which is loosely defined as when someone feels like they don’t deserve to be in their current position and got there by luck instead of their abilities—has become a hot topic in career consulting as more people recognize its existence. “It’s something that’s been occurring throughout the years, but in the last five to seven years it’s really become part of the workplace conversation,” says Valerie Hayes, lead career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

“Researchers estimate 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at one point or another.”

First described in a 1978 study as an “internal experience of intellectual phonies,” researchers estimate about 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at one point or another. And the phenomenon doesn’t discriminate, hitting both brand-new workers and seasoned leaders. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, have both described times when they’ve felt insecure and unworthy. “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO,” Schultz told the New York Times.

One of the driving culprits that makes us feel this way? Technology, both in terms of having to learn new websites and apps for work, and also by allowing easy access to information—which, for people who suffer from imposter syndrome, heightens fears of being exposed. Career coaches say the phenomenon is particularly prevalent in female leaders. (Ironically, the original study explaining the syndrome studied 150 highly successful women.) That’s because companies are still far behind in placing them in the higher echelons of many fields. “If they’re the only woman in the room and no one else looks like them, thoughts of ‘Why am I here? Do I deserve to be here?’ can come up,” Hayes says.

The first steps toward fighting the syndrome may begin with finding a new group of mentors. As people are promoted to tougher assignments, their usual supporters may lack the experience to explain the next skill sets, so a new round of networking may be necessary. What’s more, many large companies may have prior training webinars tucked away on their internal websites that HRs can help retrieve. Indeed, in a subtle recognition of tech disruptions, companies are now spending more than $90 billion on training expenditures. Have you checked them out or skipped past notices? Few people ever consider online or other outsides courses either, even though the stakes—flopping in the new job—are so high.

Organizational psychologists also make a point that since imposter syndrome is self-imposed, some of it can be self-remedied. Many recommend figuring out the cause of the imposter feelings. Is it because you’re a perfectionist and need everything to be exactly right? Or is it because you think your charm and perceptiveness won you the job instead of your intellect? No one can cure all insecurity, of course, but good leaders find a way to internally spotlight their accomplishments.

Simple as it sounds, learning to pause more to slow down the negative thoughts can help. When one of Hayes’s clients began discussing her anxiety around a major project she was working on, her mind immediately shifted to what could go wrong; Hayes stopped her to ask what could go right. “She didn’t answer at first because she hadn’t even considered that outcome,” says Hayes.

take our career resiliency quiz
take our career resiliency quiz