The other day I was speaking with a colleague about Impostor Syndrome. In short, Impostor Syndrome is a psychological phenomenal where individuals cannot internalize their accomplishments. We shared stories of clients who were very successful but lacked confidence in their abilities to be successful. The clients could not credit their success to their talents and/or ability, rather they see their successes as being lucky or working harder than others. The difficultly lies in the person assuming that at any moment, others will see through the facade and know they are not as talented and successful as others believe. And while affecting many successful women, this phenomenon also afflicts men as well.
The danger in this syndrome is that one will unknowingly hurt their career progression. When an executive praises your accomplishment, you may find yourself saying, “It was a team effort, I can’t take the credit” or “I was lucky that XYZ happened” or “Hey, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while (laugh)”. While you may see your response as being humble and sharing the credit (and humble is good in many cases), if this is your typical response to praise you are inadvertently sending the message that you are not as talented as the other person believes you to be.
A few years back, the VP of my department paid me a compliment. I responded sheepishly by saying, “It is no big deal, just doing my job.” He stopped me and gave me some great advice – when someone compliments you, thank them and accept the compliment. Besides showing good manners to the person extending the compliment, you also don’t want to undercut your professional image with the other person.
In a previous post, I championed trumpeting one’s accomplishments in order to ensure being noticed in the workplace. If one believes he is an “impostor”, this effort is difficult to do. If you find that you are afflicted with impostor syndrome, take steps to deal with the condition before you unknowingly stall your career progression. Recognize when you are experiencing negative thoughts about your ability. Know that you are not alone in experiencing these thoughts, you have been successful in the past, and you have every right to expect to be successful in the future. Develop coping mechanisms in order to avoid letting the negative thoughts overtake your success – an easy one is to keep a file of emails or notes of appreciation that you have received from your past successes. Finally, accept accolades and acknowledge there is truth behind what others are saying about your work.
A professor at a top university shared with me his philosophy about his year-end course evaluations. He would stack the ratings from best to worst. He paid little attention to reviews that were in the top and bottom 10% of his ratings because he believes he is not as good as the top 10% gave him credit for, nor as bad as the bottom 10% accused him of being – the truth lies in the middle. If you find yourself focusing on the negative and not believing the good comments, remember the truth is in the middle somewhere – and probably higher than you give yourself credit for.
Kevin Monahan is the Associate Director of the Notre Dame Career Center. In this role, he leads the center’s employer relations efforts in addition to coaching young professionals in career management and career change capacities. He combines career consulting services with employer outreach to help find opportunities for both constituencies. He is the author of the Career Seeker’s Guide blog.