I first heard imposter syndrome defined in a leadership training for executive women rising in their fields. It's the nagging feeling you get that you're not qualified for your position. You might believe others know more than you do. And somewhere deep down, you fear that someday (probably sooner than later), someone is going to find out. When you're found out, the big "they" will take away your title and put you back in your lowly place.
As the trainer described this fear, popcorn start to pop in my head. Each kernel that exploded was a memory of a time at work I'd felt exactly that way. "I've somehow tricked them into giving me this job. I'm not good enough to be here and they're going to find out." I was too focused on myself in the moment to notice the other heads nodding around the room.
It turns out it's an incredibly common phenomenon--especially among women.
So, how does imposter syndrome impact your day-to-day performance?
For most, feeling incompetent (but not actually being so) pushes you into overdrive. You put in extra hours to practice and polish more. You just do better. Of course, your boss doesn't mind this, and will probably reward you with further advancement opportunities.
Alone, that's not necessarily a bad thing. But, how does the syndrome affect your staff?
Oh, it can get ugly. Imposters generally feel on edge and at risk at work. They operate with a general feeling of anxiety that goes up and down depending on the circumstances.
They feel more vulnerable around senior leaders, so they manage up. A lot. This diverts time and energy that could (and should) be otherwise invested in their teams. Need a question answered? They're too busy--typically responding to something their boss requested.
They're often demanding of their teams and unreasonable in their expectations. Part of the running dialogue in their head is this: They're putting in the extra hours, so everyone else working for them should be, too. Any work product that falls short of their definition of perfect is the opposite. It's awful. You're likely to receive an overwhelming number of comments and corrections from somebody suffering from imposter syndrome. Writing is a common target for their wrath. They may say the grammar is wrong, when it's really a different preference in style. The same pattern emerges for other types of creative work products.
By trying to overcompensate, people with imposter syndrome inadvertently create a critical weakness. They struggle to create cohesive, high-performing teams around them because they're so worried about how capable they appear as individuals. But this overcompensation and lack of self-assuredness puts them on a spectrum of difficult to work for to a downright tyrant. It can turn their team members against them and create a judgemental work environment.
Though getting over your imposter syndrome is much easier said than done, keep in mind how much your fear can actually get in the way of your work rather than improve it. Once you realize that you got your job because you're qualified and that nobody's going to come take it away from you, you'll start feeling much more in control and confident. And that will reflect in the relationships you make at work.