(Lesson 5 From 1,000 Assessments)
–I sat across from one of the most successful people I have ever met and watched his eyes well up with tears. I had just told him that his assessment revealed that he perceived himself as an imposter. After a few moments of silence, he revealed that he’s been waiting for 20 years for someone to expose him and today it happened. To date, he had not shared this feeling with anyone, including his wife, and was awed that an assessment could see what he had worked so hard to conceal.
This person, the COO of a very large international organization, asked Psynet Group to assess his direct reports. As a group, their performance in the previous year lagged behind budget and he was interested in understanding why. In addition, he believed strongly that a leader should never ask someone to do something unpleasant if they are not willing to do so themselves, thus taking the assessments as well.
The data revealed his belief that all his success was achieved by mistake or luck. Psychologists call this belief system “Imposter Syndrome” and research indicates that my client was not alone. According to a 2011 article in the Journal of Behavioral Sciences, about 70% of people will experience this feeling at some point during their lives. In looking at our assessment data, about 19% of the executives we measured at the time were experiencing the phenomenon. Imposter Syndrome is most common among those who are starting something new, such as going to graduate school, growing a business, or starting a new position. It’s no surprise, therefore, that we see this feeling most often arise during our pre-hire assessments.
Detecting Imposter Syndrome
Without a valid assessment, Imposter Syndrome is very hard to detect during the selection process. This is because the fear of being found out is so embedded that those who suffer from the phenomenon are highly skillful at concealing its appearance. Additionally, it is virtually impossible to predict what kind of situation will trigger an impostor reaction, because candidates typically feel very competent in several areas while doubting themselves in only a few others.
Dangers in Hiring or Promoting
Given its ubiquity, why would companies even care to know if a candidate is experiencing Imposter Syndrome? Simply put, the potential consequences can be enormous. Psynet Group assesses for the phenomenon because imposters tend to fall into behavioral cycles that lead either to inaction (due to fear of falling short) or excessive preparation (due to fear of being found out). In both instances, productivity and efficiency is directly impaired, sometimes eliciting the unclear judgement that accompanies panic associated with failure or exposure. Our experience indicates that it takes at least six months after hiring or promoting before Imposter Syndrome creates serious problems at work.
Managing Imposter Syndrome
So what happened to our COO? He managed to succeed in his role for 4 years following our conversation. The two of us remained in contact until about 2 years ago, as he would reach out bi-monthly. We would meet over a couple of beers and talk about strategies to avoid falling into the trap of inaction or over-preparation. These strategies helped him achieve greater success within the organization resulting in a promotion requiring a move to Europe. Despite my advice against doing so, he soon thereafter discontinued our meetings to free up time for his new responsibilities. Unfortunately, this promotion and subsequent move triggered the vicious Imposter Syndrome cycle of over-preparation. As a result, after more than 20 years in the company, he was released.
In this case, the COO was able to manage the feeling of being an imposter with our regularly scheduled semi-informal meetings. His heightened level of awareness at the first sight of an impending issue was enough to prompt him into these regular meetings. In order to make significant and lasting change, however, altering the beliefs associated with Imposter Syndrome requires a more intense coaching or psychotherapy regimen. Many people are equipped to deal with these feelings on their own, but working with a professional highly accelerates the process while creating lasting behavior change.
Just like many psychological phenomena, Imposter Syndrome has both a light side and a dark side. Those who manage the negative aspects of the dark side while expressing the positive aspects of the light side tend to do very well as leaders.
The positive side of Imposter Syndrome is humility. The more time that I spent with the COO’s team, the more I heard about his humility manifested by a genuine interest in the ideas of others and his joy in facilitating their implementation. He refused self-promotion and actively gave credit to others, resulting in increased likability and respect from his direct reports.
When his beliefs were effectively managed, he took the time to concentrate on organizational details and pushed his team to move beyond average without impairing productivity.
By the time of his promotion, however, he was put in a position where failure was imminent without more rigorous professional help. The overall change, coupled with the complexity of the role, created a great deal of anxiety about his ability to succeed. During our coaching, he learned to manage anxiety and avoid stagnation and over preparation. With this increase in pressure and no accompanying increase in professional intervention, this promotion and the Imposter Syndrome directly led to his release.