You built a $20 million business...but looking back, getting there seemed oddly easy. You're in charge of 50 people...but most of the time you feel like they lead themselves. You just turned a struggling employee around (something that, objectively, is really hard to do)...but hey, that's your job.
To you, your accomplishments seem ordinary, unremarkable, and even insufficient -- even though, to others, they're remarkable.
That's imposter syndrome, the inner belief that no matter what you've achieved, you're really just a fraud: mediocre, inadequate, or just plain lucky.
If you "suffer" from imposter syndrome, you're not alone.
I definitely do; whatever I've achieved seems insignificant, and pales in comparison to what I think I should have achieved. Or take someone at the far end of the success spectrum. Paul McCartney says he has always felt like a pretender; after a lifetime of achievement, he's still afraid he'll be exposed as a fraud.
Imposter syndrome can be detrimental -- and is almost always considered to be detrimental -- especially if it results in self-handicapping.
Like turning down an opportunity due to fear of failure. Or stepping back when your skills, talent, and experience actually make you the perfect person to step forward. Or failing to reach your potential because you think you need to wait for someone else to discover or "choose" you.
Yet there can be a surprisingly positive side to imposter syndrome.
According to a study just published in Academy of Management Journal, the imposter phenomenon can lead to interpersonal benefits; for example, how well you work with other people.
As the researchers write:
Employees who more frequently have such thoughts are evaluated as more interpersonally effective because they adopt a more other-focused [my italics] orientation [and this does not come] at the expense of competence-related outcomes like performance.
Or put another way, many people with imposter syndrome are masters of Social Jiu-Jitsu: the ancient art of getting you, without noticing, to talk about yourself.
SJ masters seem fascinated by every twist and turn in your quest to land a new customer. They seem fascinated by every step you took to craft that fancy pivot table.
You walk away thinking, "Wow, we just had a great conversation. She's awesome!"
Even though you did most of the talking.
Which is the goal for people with imposter syndrome. Since they think they'll be exposed as less intelligent, less skilled, less talented, or in some other way lesser than they appear...they shift the focus to others.
That "other-focus" makes them more interpersonally effective because they tend to listen more and ask better questions. Their focus on the other person implicitly shows they respect that person's accomplishments, experiences, and opinions -- and by extension, the person.
As the researchers write:
Prior work has assumed that those who have such thoughts maladaptively turn inwards in response as a way to manage the threat to self-esteem.
In contrast, turning outwards can instead be a proximal consequence...although [imposter syndrome] threatens self-esteem, crucially, others are not the source of threat, given that others regard those with workplace impostor thoughts highly.
Thus, turning inwards may not be the subsequent response.
So if you experience imposter syndrome, take heart. For one thing, you're probably really good at shifting the focus to others. That's a good thing.
And in a broader sense, while not feeling like you've made it can be emotionally draining, that feeling is also what makes successful people become even more successful.
McCartney may have felt like a fraud during the heyday of the Beatles, but that feeling pushed him to write even better songs, to explore different styles of music...and to never stop learning, evolving, and trying to do better the next time.
And it can do the same for you.
Be glad you'll probably never feel like you've made it, especially if that feeling drives you to put in the time and effort to turn "good enough" into great...and then get up and do it again the next day.
And since no one ever accomplishes anything worthwhile on their own, see the interpersonal effectiveness that results from imposter syndrome as a positive as well.
Because shifting the focus and attention onto other people is always a good thing.