“I don’t know what I’m doing half the time,”
“I have to look strong and in control for my team. If they ever find out I’m a fraud, it will all fall apart.”
“Any day now, they’ll figure out I don’t know what I’m doing and fire me.”
Odds are, most of us have said those very things to ourselves. Worse, we believe them. We shouldn’t.
These thoughts and so many others are classic examples of “Imposter Syndrome.” The phrase was coined by two professors in the early 1970s. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes published a paper called, The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.
While the original research focused on women who’d achieved beyond the traditional glass ceiling, the term can apply to anyone who has achieved a degree of career and goal recognition. Almost every famous leader, speaker, writer, or performer has felt the icy grip of fear they can’t meet their own (and others’) expectations.
Unless you are a complete sociopath or chronic narcissist, you’ve probably experienced fleeting thoughts of not being up to the task(s) ahead of you. It’s natural. In some ways it is helpful, pushing us to put in better effort or pay more attention to the quality of our work. For others it can be crippling.
Working remotely often makes it worse.
When we work around others, there is a constant feedback loop. Some of that is explicit—people tell you what a good job you did, or how smart you are. Some days you believe them. Even when it’s more tacit and less overt—the nods of acceptance, people come to you for advice, or your employers reward you with good performance reviews or monetary rewards, it provides evidence for your competence. That many people can’t be wrong, right?
Many Long-Distance Leaders don’t get that feedback regularly. Working from home, or in half-empty offices while their team and colleagues are elsewhere, means the voice they hear most often is their own, absent contrary (positive) opinions to offset the feelings of inadequacy.
Our inner critic is often the harshest, most unfair voice we can listen to. I constantly have to remind myself that I’d fire anyone who spoke to an employee the way I speak to myself. But how do you overcome the sensation that you are a failure in waiting, and the people who rely on you will inevitably be disappointed?
Recall explicit positive feedback you’ve gotten from people you respect.
Your boss is one of the smartest most capable people you know. Is it likely she’s that wrong about you?
Separate feelings from facts.
You might feel like you could have done better in that presentation, but did it get the results you expected? Did you receive positive feedback at the time?
Stop comparing yourself to others.
When your inner critic gets involved, it’s easy to think, “I’m not as smart as Alice,” or “Bob is way more deserving of this job than I am.” Are you doing the job? Do you think you got here by accident? It’s not about Bob or Alice.
Talk to someone you trust.
Especially when you work remotely, it’s hard to get enough feedback to shut that critic up. Don’t hesitate to seek out the voices of people you trust. Don’t ask, “Am I good enough?” You’ll likely just get a pep talk that your critic won’t believe. Ask specific questions. “In that meeting, did I make my point credibly? Did people buy it like I think they did?” You’ll likely get more honest and helpful feedback.
A healthy skepticism about our own humanity and weaknesses is important. It keeps us on our toes, working hard, and watching for potential problems and miscommunication. Too much can become crippling and demotivating.
One way to overcome feelings of inadequacy is to consistently read and learn. Often, when reading a book like The Long-Distance Leader, you’ll realize that while there may be areas for improvement, you are already doing so many things right. You may not be the leader you aspire to be—few of us are—but you aren’t the abject failure that inner critic says you are either.
Don’t let impostor syndrome suck the joy from your work with others.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.