I’m a fraud, or at least that is how I feel sometimes when I’m driving home after a day of work. It is only a matter of time before they will discover that I’m not up to the job. I’ve heard these sentences 5 times over the last 2 weeks. And they all came from people in high places: a CEO from a SME, a managing partner from a consulting agency, a school headmaster, and 2 senior managers from a large insurance agency.
Despite the idea that layman people have from people at the top, this feeling is not uncommon. It is called the ‘imposter syndrome’, and has been first described by Clance & Imes in 1978. These people are unable to internalize their success and attribute it to external factors (luck, timing) or consider it the result of their ability to make others believe that they are more intelligent and competent than they believe they are themselves.
Manfred Kets De Vries devotes a whole chapter to it in his book ‘the leader on the couch’ . He states that people who suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’ often fear that they will not live up to the expectations of others. They are driven and assessed by some sort of absolute perfectionism. They often become workaholics. It goes without saying that this has negative consequences for themselves, their environments and their organizations.
The most important reasons for experiencing it are demanding critics as parents (it is never good enough), pursuing (and/or having ) a successful career that is not in line with the social-cultural expectations of the parents (so they disapprove). In the latter situation,the feeling of being a fraud is often associated with having outpaced the parents.
The good news is that nobody has to tolerate that feeling a fraud will be part of the rest of his/her live. Leadership coaching (especially cognitive based) and groups coaching have demonstrated to be successful remedies. They have to learn that criticism and failure are part of corporate live and often a great source to learn something new. A the end of the day is success a journey not a destination.
We all have to realize that we make two journeys, an outer and inner one. The way we experience our inner journey will define how we execute and experience the outer one. Inner peace, coming from the inner journey, is the result of living the way we want instead of trying to live the live we think others expect from us and this will make us happy. And being happy is the key to success. (Kets De Vries, 2006).
Clance, P.R. & S.A. Imes (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high-achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: theory, research and practice, 15: 241-247.
Kets De Vries, M.F.R. (2006). The leader on the coach: a clinical approach to changing people & organizations. John Wiley & Sons.