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Logically, I know I’m good at what I do. But I’m still constantly afraid someone is going to find me out for being a fraud.
Millions of people – one researcher estimated 70% of people at one time in their lives – get up each day and face the fear of being found out as a phoney in the face of evidence to contrary.
The nagging feeling that the role they have should have gone to someone more capable can be a constant and unwelcome companion for many. The sense that at any point someone is going to tap him or her on the shoulder and say they’d been appointed to a project by mistake drives many to overwork to assuage their fear of failure and engage in rampant perfectionism.
Despite being clearly and evidently capable, many still believe themselves to be simply not good enough.
Impostor Phenomenon (IP), the feeling of intellectual phoniness first theorised by American psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, is something that is often thought of as an individual concern and something that exists only in the heads of those who experience it. And in one sense this is true.
We may unknowingly look at someone experiencing IP and think that they are successful, confident and outwardly comfortable with their own achievements. Inwardly, though, they’re often a mess of fearful, self-critical and blunder-loathing anxiety.
However, when talking to people – and women in particular – about their experiences of IP, one gets a sense that the workplace is unknowingly perpetuating the feeling of being less than capable. Traditional processes, systems and behaviours are inadvertently confirming employees’ narratives of being bogus.
A simple example plays out every day in most workplaces. Managers may allow people to blame themselves for the mistakes of others and disavow themselves of creditworthy work. We hear it all the time. “Oh, no. Don’t praise me, it was ‘so and so’ who made the difference!” Despite knowing this to be untrue, how many of us have allowed our colleagues to diminish their own achievements in this way or batted it away as humility? Externalisation of achievement to others where success is clearly of one’s own making is a classic IP characteristic.