Attacking Imposter Syndrome

In a recent book by Adam Grant, called Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things he speaks about overcoming Imposter Syndrome. If you are not familiar with Grant, he is a well-respected organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton Business School. He was rated by students as the #1 professor at Wharton for 7 straight years! If you’ve never heard of Imposter Syndrome, it is a common phenomenon where people doubt their skills, talents, and accomplishments, despite evidence to the contrary. They may feel like a fraud or an impostor, and fear being exposed as soon as others realize their true incompetence. In our experience, we believe that this malady could be something that former military officers feel when switching to the corporate sector. For example, once you separate all of a sudden your specialized military technical experience may be of little value in your new role and you find yourself tackling issues you’ve never dealt with. Yet the company hired you due to your outstanding track record as a leader in the military and your ability to handle challenging tasks.

This syndrome may not be something you should lose sleep over, nonetheless, it’s something to think about ahead of time. One way to approach it comes from Grant who suggests using a growth mindset. To quote him in the book:

Imposter Syndrome says: I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds out.

Growth Mindset says: I don’t know what I’m doing yet, it’s only a matter of time until I figure it out. [emphasis is ours]

We believe that there are two simple yet important takeaways from this.

  1. Set realistic expectations for yourself. In other words, focus on progress, not perfection. Notice, the emphasis on the word “yet” in the quotation. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll be prepared to handle every issue you encounter right off the bat. If you think about it, you may have forgotten that you had some form of imposter syndrome when you took your first job in the military. It’s unlikely you had all the answers from the outset. Yet you succeeded nonetheless.
  2. Do something about it. You can’t sit around and hope it gets better and that nobody finds out. You might get away with that for a while, but it will catch up to you sooner or later. One of the most important things you can do, yet many fail to do, is to ask questions. Undoubtedly, some leaders may see that as a sign of weakness when it’s not at all. By asking questions, not only do you learn, but you present yourself as very human while empowering those with whom you asked the questions.

At the end of the day, you should take comfort in knowing that many people suffer from Imposter Syndrome. One study claims that up to 90 percent of women and 80 percent of men experience the syndrome. That includes people like doctors, lawyers, CEOs, you name it. If you take a look around, you’d probably be surprised at the people who have it, yet fake their way through. Knowing there’s a good chance it will catch up to you, it’s best to head it off by acknowledging it, setting realistic expectations, and seeking a growth mindset.