The Cost of Impostor Syndrome

My reaction to reading this article was visceral. The title alone is enough to propel my memory back to a time when I believed being “successful” at work requires living and breathing my job (which comes with a heaping side of “eating your life”). I never thought of this behavior as being rooted in insecurity, as Laura Empson suggests here. But she’s on to something real here. A parallel issue I encounter all the time in my executive coaching practice is Impostor Syndrome. This is where highly successful people (often CEOs and other top business leaders) fear they’re simply not as great as everyone thinks they are, or that they’re not competent enough to deserve the title they have. It’s all a ruse, the jig will soon be up, they’ll soon be caught out. It’s the fear of being exposed as a fraud, and this syndrome is hardly exceptional—in fact, in my experience, it’s commonplace. Ironically, this inner critic that many of us have is achieving the opposite of its purpose, which is to keep us safe and protected. Many top leaders are driven by their inner critic to work harder and longer in order to avoid being seen as not good enough. And it works, to some extent…for a while. If unchecked, though, this kind of thinking – and the overwork it leads to – can and does wreak havoc in a leader’s life. Common “side effects” are insomnia and insufficient sleep, poor physical health, extreme stress, mental burn out and lowered ability for inspired, innovative thinking. It can even effect your hormones and cause weight gain. (If you’ve heard of ‘Wheat Belly,’ the current notion that wheat causes belly fat, inspired by a book of the same name, I’ve got better one for you: ‘Work Belly.’) These unhealthy heroics don’t just harm the individual. When leaders set this kind of example, and others in their organization follow it, these side effects have real business consequences. How might your work place change if leaders and employees showed up each day well rested and mentally fresh after an evening spent not working, confident that they are capable of tackling the day’s challenges, ready to do their best work? I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it would make all the difference in the world. What do you think?