Feeling you don’t belong – imposter syndrome in the workplace

If you’re a new manager, just started a new job, or taken on a new role or responsibilities, you don’t need telling there’s a lot to learn – a lot of changes to navigate. Any promotion or new position can be a quantum leap; not just in career terms but also in the level of uncertainty and risk you might be feeling.

However much you deserve it, it’s easy (at times) to believe that you don’t – the classic “I can’t do this!” feeling.

But really, you’ve been appointed/recruited/promoted because you have the skills, knowledge and experience to do the job. So, why do you feel like an imposter, waiting to be ‘found out’?

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is based on doubt – the doubt that you should be where you are, doing what you doing, with the people you’re doing it with. Central to imposter syndrome is the fear of boing ‘found out’. In the workplace, this the fear of being exposed as not fit for the job, or incompetent in some way. You feel like a fraud, having to fool your colleagues just to maintain your cover.

Common symptoms of imposter syndrome include:

  • Self-doubt (especially re: your relevant skills and competence)
  • Fearful of discovery
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Difficulty accepting compliments/praise
  • A tendency to credit external factors for your success (“I was lucky!”)
  • Feeling isolated from colleagues and team members
  • The drive to be perfect (impossible, of course, but that’s the standard you’re holding yourself to)
  • A fear of failure
  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Feeling burnt out

In fact, according to research by Asana, more than 60% of knowledge workers have experienced imposter syndrome.

Why do you feel like an imposter?

What drives imposter syndrome? What mindset or internal script is playing out? Probably one of the following:

  1. Perfectionist – the drive here is not so much on results as on process, doing it right. Even if someone praises the outcomes, a perfectionist will probably be telling themselves they could have done it better.
  2. Expert – for anyone who is all about how much they know and what they can do, even a small lack of knowledge or expertise can throw them. And guess what, in a new situation (role, responsibility, etc.) nobody can know everything – that’s why it’s “new”.
  3. Naturally competent – some people are just good at stuff, picking up new knowledge and apparently applying it with ease. However, when such people don’t succeed on the first attempt, they can spiral into feeling like a failure.
  4. Go it alone – some like to do everything themselves (a “If you want something done right, do it yourself” mentality). Unfortunately, that often means a reluctance to ask for help. And we all need help sometimes…
  5. Juggler – if someone prides themselves on the number and breadth of roles and tasks they can handle at once, no matter how they excel across the board, if they drop just one of the balls they’re keeping in the air, they feel like a failure.

It’s an issue of confidence

Simply speaking, imposter syndrome is a question of confidence. All of the above ultimately stems from a lack of self-belief to some degree. And confidence is directly affected by self-talk. The question is, what are you telling yourself? What impression are you giving others around you? (your team, colleagues, bosses, customers/clients…?) Confidence is a question of perspective – as in, maintaining a realistic perspective and not one of the five mindsets mentioned above.

Support your confidence by:

  • Focusing on the facts
  • Understanding and acknowledging what you are feeling
  • Sharing with others how you’re feeling (and maybe accepting any help offered)
  • Learning from others (e.g. get yourself a mentor)
  • Reframing negative thoughts (e.g. to focus on what you can do/control rather than what you can’t)


  • When you have a win, celebrate it!

The experience of imposter syndrome is common (60+%, remember?) and it’s no reflection on your actual competence – after all, by definition, imposter syndrome is about feeling you can’t do ‘it’ when in fact you can.

For more on this subject, Maximum Performance is running a free 45-minute webinar on 19 May: “imposter syndrome and how to deal with it”. You can register for the webinar here, or if you want to talk about what else Maximum Performance could offer, give us a call on 01582 463460 – we’re always happy to help.

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