Education

Your career and the Imposter Syndrome

A Harvard Business blog post by Gill Corkindale talks about a phenomenon she calls Imposter Syndrome. Briefly, this is something seen in managers on fast-track careers who have been promoted to roles that challenge their abilities and makes them question themselves. But is this such a bad thing?

In an article on BNET recently, Sean Silverthorne discussed a Harvard Business blog post by Gill Corkindale about a phenomenon she calls Imposter Syndrome. Briefly, this is something seen in managers on fast-track careers who have been promoted to roles that challenge their abilities. At some point, they feel like they're not worthy of the position, like they're an imposter.

Corkindale is quoted as saying "Despite support from their bosses and feedback showing they have great operational, strategic and people skills, they often seem beset with doubts."

I don't see a problem with this. My immediate thought was "If only all managers felt this from time to time." Maybe it's my line of work, but I've seen mostly the opposite: the I-Couldn't-Possibly-Fail Syndrome.

Usually the people who are humble and self-aware enough to have doubts about their abilities are the very ones who are really good at management. It's the ones who think they know it all that usually blunder their way through things.

It's pretty normal to have doubts about management capability. It's not a skill you can gauge by how well you know it-like a particular technology-because it's ever-changing and is complicated by the unknowns of employee behaviors.

But if you have doubts regularly, maybe it's something to be concerned with. At some point, you need to speak to someone and maybe get an objective view of your performance.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

19 comments
JohnGraden
JohnGraden

Nice article. I just wrote a book on The Impostor Syndrome. The Impostor Syndrome is the underlying feeling that you are not as smart, skilled, or talented as people think you are. It's a dread that people will find out you are faking it. How do you know if you suffer from The Impostor Syndrome? In his book, The Impostor Syndrome: How to Replace Self-Doubt with Self- Confidence and Train Your Brain for Success, John Graden outlines some possible indicators: 1. Do you sometimes not speak up because you feel people will realize you're not as smart as they think you are? 2. Do you find it hard to accept praise? 3. Is it difficult for you to take credit for your accomplishments? 4. Do you feel like a fake and fear you are going to be found out soon? 5. Are you a perfectionist who is terrified of making a mistake? Find out more about The Impostor Syndrome at www.JohnGraden.com

john
john

This is the "Peter Priciple" coined by Peter Stonier of Bradford University Management Centre, West Yorkshire, UK in the 1980's - where I studied for my Diploma in Management Studies. john@rickatson.com

hamild
hamild

At the company I've worked for the last 30 years it seems to be the norm for half-wits and self seeking nincompoops to get themselves promoted (or network their way) into positions which are clearly way beyond their abilities! The average stay in position is about 2 years which is just long enough not to get found out... Cynical? Me?

Reuban
Reuban

True. There are also those who sometimes doubt their capabilities for the next level(s), but still manage to teach everyone around them by being an example, and have undisclosed "followers". But as long as you have a good grip on your self-awareness and feedback (if any was to come your way), you should be able to come out of it pretty soon. That is, until the next major leap in your capabilities. As Sean blogs, imposters often are a result of the Peter principle and is a great personal development principle as long as the "learning" is kept around positive behaviors. Imposters with reoccurring negative behaviors should require a quick correction, as they are not the type suited to the Peter Principle.

michael.tindall
michael.tindall

Ack! someone beat me to it :) The Peter Principle: "within hierarchical organizations, individuals are systematically promoted to the level of their incompetence" and for all those who don't have the chance to enjoy the bumblings of the overpromoted at work, "The Peter Principle" is also a board game now!

Minstrel Mike
Minstrel Mike

Nowadays it seems as if folks think the Peter principle is a joke, i.e. untrue. If they think about it (or read the book), they'll find truth about mgmt. As long as you do a good job at a given task, you will get promoted to a different job. You stop being promoted as soon as you quit performing your given tasks well. That's how humans run organizations.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... though it does tend to be true. I was a manager for years and hated it. Even though I was pretty good at it, it wasn't what I loved: programming. Many companies are organized such that you can only be promoted beyond a certain level of income if you're a manager. But I have worked with a few companies that value the guru programmer even more.

Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

Which I think may be what Chip is getting at. I agree, it sometimes feels odd to be told you're the expert when you're merely the guy with arrows in your forehead 'cause you got there first. Even odder to be told you're in charge because you were good at doing, not necessarily at managing. But being the manager isn't the same as being the subject expert. Since I came into computing through PDP-8s while doing a psych Ph.D in the 60s and 70s, I have worked with bits and bytes most of my adult life. During that time, there have been lots of folks who've set up college and university course to train people in how to work with computers - in the wake of the people who were making it up as they went along. Face it, this business is still making it up as it goes along. The "right way to do things" is being written by looking at our wakes. But that's the area of subject expertise. Managing people to do things the right way in this business is something else. Read Steve McConnell's Code Complete and so forth and you get the notion that lots of managers try to reinvent the management wheel. Not necessary. I had a manager who looked me in the eye and asked me "how am I supposed to manage a guy who's smarter than I am." I answered with the first thing that came into my head, "The same way you manage a guy who's not as smart as you are." And that's the point. Most of us have had experience with good managers and bad in many areas of our life. Their success or failure sprang from how they dealt with us, and I guarantee we know the reasons why they were good or bad. The golden rule applies here: manage unto others as you would have them manage unto you.

marcusbasanta
marcusbasanta

Couldn't agree more. I often feel the same way. We dont live in perfect economies where the best skils and the best talents go to where they are best rewarded or needed. As manager, our job is to direct all of these imperfect resources, including ourselves, in the best way possible. A lot has to be with being the right person in the right place at the right time. As an experienced manager, I value one's approach to their job, their problem solving skills, their people skills, their ability to grasp situations and to act; way above their technical skills. Humility and self awareness in the approach to these situations (i.e. the imposter syndrome) is more par for the course than anything else. Marcus

vicrussell
vicrussell

I appreciate the analysis and could not agree more. Self assessment is essential to all facets of management. One of the most overlooked aspect of management is the responsibility issue - with great power comes great responsibility (Uncle Ben, 'Spiderman'). Oft times, a manager will see position equal to power 'over' others rather than responsibility 'for' many things, one of which is people. Another tenet I live by - you cannot "manage" people - you can only manage things. People are too complex to 'control': you will ultimately lose the battle of wills if you take this approach. Toss time management and focus rather on 'project' or 'process' management. It is less personal, more objective to measure, and makes it easier to 'allocate resources'. A manager recently stated in a meeting that 'I have alot of Power'. Instead, she should have stated she is willing to assist with the necessary acquisition of resources, planning, money, etc. Her focus was on 'I/Me/Mine' rather than 'We/Our/Team' centered. This combined with other statements tells me that she is overcompensating, or just narcissistic. I prefer to believe the former. One final note - we are all impostors in one facet of our career/position or another: education, technical prowess, intellect, people skills, etc. No one person can do or has 'it' all. Some form of compensation for inadequacies is good, healthy, and so long as we understand what it is we are doing, beneficial to our careers and to the careers of those we are responsible for. Thanks, VR

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

And I have done it all. Just not all at once.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... for most of my professional career. Maybe because I'm an autodidact.

PeteDude
PeteDude

I had to go look up "autodidact". But then, I am one too, and my looking it up just proved the notion. . .

jascc1
jascc1

Ha!!! Now I'm a autodidact and didn't even know it! :)

tmcclure
tmcclure

I'm glad you have a sense of humor too. There is nothing wrong with having a good vocabulary and using it with the right audience. I suspect that all good IT techs are autodidactic. I know I am self taught. Even in high school and college , as it was boring as hell.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're cracking me up. I'm divided over using words like "autodidact". Part of me says, "why use a fancy sounding four-syllable word when 'self-taught' would say the same thing in two, plus be more readily understood?" But the part of me that loved taking Greek in college enjoys the precision of the term.

tmcclure
tmcclure

Sounds like a new mental heath diagnosis in the making. But then who would have thought they could make a pill for restless leg syndrom. Is this a trend amongst IT pros? LOL.