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3 Ways Leaders Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome

June 29, 2021

By Randy Hall


You've probably heard the term and every leader has some degree of interaction with it.  It’s imposter syndrome.  According to research, about 70% of adults encounter imposter syndrome at some point but my guess is that it’s nearly 100% of people in leadership roles.

Imposter syndrome really just means that we worry about being good enough, doing things well enough, being capable enough, making the right decisions or leading people, teams and organizations the right way.  While I am not qualified to diagnose this from a psychological perspective as a clinical finding, every leader feels this way at least some of the time.

Imposter Syndrome Gets in the Way. 

Leaders can dwell on their worthiness so much that they miss the opportunity to focus on development, improvement, or change. Our brain is not very good at wrestling with the unknown or completely subjective, “am I good enough” while also using its cognitive abilities to put plans in place for steps we can take to make progress on how good we want to be.  If we say yes to the wondering part, we are essentially saying no to the planning part.  We simply can’t worry about our abilities and improve them at the same time.

It erodes confidence, even if it shouldn't.  I have worked with a lot of exceptionally capable leaders that spend way too much time Monday morning quarterbacking each of their decisions.  They can sometimes go back years and replay conversations, choices or strategies and spend time rehashing them in ways that actually provide no new insight at all about the situation.   We are simply just teaching our brain to second guess us when we do that. Anything we repeat often enough, the brain will build into a habit.

There’s actually research that shows that we make better decisions by considering our possible options than we do by scanning our past decisions.  Leaders make far better choices by considering what they should do, than by examining what they have done in the past. Imposter syndrome keeps our brain in that past place though and can even cause us to make poor decisions going forward as we are stuck wondering if our past decisions were correct.

Leadership comes with a lot of responsibility. 

We are now responsible for the performance of others and that is not an easy thing to be comfortable with.  We own engagement, improvement, results, change, the quality of talent, the culture...It’s a lot. That makes it easy to doubt whether we are up to the task or not.

Try these things if you find yourself wondering, doubting, or second guessing your worthiness as a leader.

1. Remove your mind from the fight by changing the channel.

It’s natural to try to combat the feelings or thoughts with your own counterpoints, but it just causes you to spend more time in the fight.  If you have the thought, “I don’t know if my team likes me” rather than thinking about all the evidence that could indicate that they do like you, simply acknowledge the thought and then add the question, “If I wanted to be more connected to my team, what are some things I could do regularly that would help?”  This changes the channel and points the brain at a mission rather than letting it wallow in doubt.

2. Focus on improvement.

Nothing helps move away from the doubt and anxiety of imposter syndrome faster than consistently getting better.  It is true that some of us can be completely flawless and still feel inferior but for most of us, the process of improvement makes us feel better about our capabilities, our impact, and our success.  Think about a few things each week that you want to work on, learn more about, or develop new skills around. It’s hard to spend time focused on the past when I am building for the future.

3. Ask for feedback, but in specific ways.

As part of our improvement process it is important to ask for specific feedback.  That means that we don’t ask, “how am I doing as a leader?”  We ask, “what are 3 things I could do to support your success more effectively?”  The first of those questions will get us more vagaries if anything and that won’t be helpful.  If we have more concrete steps that we can take or more clarity around what our team needs, then we can take action.  Our brain loves a good plan, and it will spend it’s time there if we simply point it in a better direction.

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As a leader, it is likely that you will have moments of doubt and fear.  It just comes with the territory. But you do not have to stay in that space.  You can have a plan, be ready to execute that plan when you have those thoughts and be accountable for pointing your mind in a direction that helps you become a better leader, not wonder if you ever will be.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

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