The Imposter Syndrome


No matter where you go or what you do,

you live your entire life within the confines

of your head.  Terry Josephson


In my work with leaders, and in teaching our Transformational Leadership Program, my clients and program participants often discuss people they have or are working with who are either:

  • promoted to very senior position with inadequate skill capability for the role, resulting in all the ensuing negative ramifications of this type of situation, or
  • who have huge amounts of self-doubt and lack self confidence in their abilities even though the people around them admire and respect them enormously.

The first group are poor leaders and can be very difficult to deal with because they are in often either ignorant of their inadequacies or in denial, take enormous lengths to cover their actual inadequacies by deflecting, delegating and avoiding situations where they feel confronted and exposed.  This has huge effects of the quality of productive work, on team spirit and on organisational outcomes.  It is generally a reflection of serial poor leadership, usually on a number of levels over time which is why these “imposters” were able to advance to their current position in the first place.  Poor leaders have managed these people poorly, advancing them without appropriate and honest feedback on their performance, until they are quite senior.  It then becomes more difficult to address the issues the more senior they are.

The second group are actually usually high achievers with varying degrees of self doubt, angst and perceptions of intellectual fraudulence.

Based on the pioneering work of psychotherapists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who first identified the Imposter Phenomena, Valerie Young has devised a set of questions to determine a person’s feeling about being an “imposter”.

  • Do you secretly worry that others will find out that you’re not as bright and capable as they think you are?
  • Do you sometimes shy away from challenges because of nagging self-doubt?
  • Do you tend to chalk your accomplishments up to being a “fluke”, “no big deal” or the fact that people just “like” you?
  • Do you hate making a mistake, being less than fully prepared or not doing things perfectly?
  • Do you tend to be crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness”?
  • When you do succeed do you think, “Phew, I fooled ‘em this time but I am not be so lucky next time”?
  • Do you believe that other people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter and more capable that you are?
  • Do you live in fear of being found out, discovered and unmasked?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then you may have a degree of Imposter Syndrome.

Despite all the accolades from peers, despite a person’s skills and abilities, despite their successful progression up through the ranks, they cannot internalise their accomplishments and in their mind they believe that it is only a matter of time until they are found out to be fraud.  These fears can prevent people from living fully and enjoying their successes.  It also stops them from seizing opportunities and can cause people to over work to compensate their feelings of inadequacy.

To help move past feeling like an imposter people can:

  • Recognise these imposter feelings when they arise  – track these thoughts and the triggers that start them
  • Reprogram your mental script as a life-long learner and that none of us know everything!
  • Talk about your feelings with someone you trust
  • Reframe the context of the experience to be a temporary feeling of inadequacy or fear – you don’t always feel like this and focus on the times when you feel confident and capable
  • Reframe any failure as a learning opportunity – look for the lessons and use them constructively for change
  • Be kind on yourself – focus on your strengths and realise that life is a journey
  • Seek support – get a coach or confidant to help you shift your negative perceptions to more positive beliefs
  • Visualise your success – focus on what you when rather than what you don’t want and allow your magnificent brain to work to the outcomes you desire

There can also be difficulties for highly successful people, with or without Imposter Syndrome.  Chris Argyris (1991) states that many professionals are almost always successful at what they do and hence rarely experience failure. “Because they have rarely failed they have never learned how to learn from failure.  So whenever their single-loop learning strategies (learning from correcting errors in the external environment) go wrong, they become defensive and put the blame on anyone and everyone but themselves.  In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most”.

Double-loop learning reflections on how a person thinks – the cognitive rules and reasoning used to design and implement actions.  For example, defensive reasoning from the imposter syndrome can block learning even when individual commitment to the learning is high.

We all hold self generating beliefs which remain largely untested.  Our filters, the way we delete, distort and generalise data based on our personality, values, memories etc.  This determines our beliefs and how we process information in our minds giving us our mental models of the world and thus our outcomes.  Our ability to achieve the results we truly desire can be sabotaged by our feelings that:

  • Our beliefs are true
  • The truth is obvious
  • Our beliefs are based on real data
  • The data we select are real data.

One way to apply double-loop learning is to reflect on our own mental models by applying the ladder of inference.

The Ladder of Inference (Argyris in Senge et al, 1995:254)

Ladder Thinking Example
Action I take action based on my beliefs I want a transfer
Beliefs I adopt beliefs about the world I’m not good enough
Conclusions I draw conclusions I’m a lousy writer
Assumptions I make assumptions based on the meaning I add He hates my report
Meanings I add meanings – cultural and personal My report is no good
Data I select data based on filtering of what I observe My boss is cranky because of gaps in my report
Observation I observe data and experiences from my internal and external environment My boss says that there are gaps in my report


We can see from this example that the way the data was processed created a response that was not in any way linked to the original information received.  It was the processing that distorted the thinking and thus created the negative outcome.

When we take the time to reflect back and reverse engineer our thoughts we can then decide what is working for us and what might be useful to change.  It also helps to use this model to “get into the heads of other people” so that we can determine why they are thinking and behaving the way they are and enable them to get the double-loop learning for positive and empowering change.

We cover this in a lot more practical detail in our Transformational Leadership program.  Our next program commences in September.  If you would like more information about this article or the program please contact me directly and I will be delighted to discuss this further.

As always, I would be thrilled if you would share your thoughts and results with me at



Posted in On Leadership