Mary Shirley, in several episodes of the Great Women in Compliance podcast (co-hosted with Lisa Fine), has brought up the “Imposter Syndrome”. What is the Imposter Syndrome? Gill Corkindale, writing in the Harvard Business Review, defined it as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. “‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.” Corkindale went onto provide some cogent examples. They included:

  • “I must not fail”There can be a huge amount of pressure currently not to fail in order to avoid being “found out.” Paradoxically, success also becomes an issue as it brings the added pressure of responsibility and visibility. This leads to an inability to enjoy success.
  • “I feel like a fake” Imposters believe they do not deserve success or professional accolades and feel that somehow others have been deceived into thinking otherwise. This goes hand in hand with a fear of being “found out”, discovered, or “unmasked”. They believe they give the impression that they are more competent than they are and have deep feelings that they lack knowledge or expertise. Often, they believe they don’t deserve a position or a promotion and are anxious that “somebody made a mistake”.
  • “It’s all down to luck” The tendency to attribute success to luck or to other external reasons and not their abilities is a clear indicator of imposter syndrome. They may typically say or think: “I just got lucky” or “it was a fluke”. Often this masks the fear that they will not be able to succeed the next time.
  • “Success is no big deal” The tendency to downplay success, and discount it, is marked in those with imposter syndrome. They might attribute their success to it being an easy task or having support and often have a hard time accepting compliments. Again, they think their success is down to luck, good timing, or having fooled others.

What can you do? One thing is to turn to Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, which provides insight into why fraud fears are more common in women combined with practical ways to banish the thought patterns that undermine their ability to feel — and act — as bright and capable as they truly are. Dr. Young is an internationally recognized expert on Impostor Syndrome. She has delivered her often humorous and highly practical approach to overcoming impostor feelings at many organizations. Dr. Young developed a 10-step approach to dealing with the Imposter Syndrome. It includes the following:

  1. Break the silence. Shame keeps a lot of people from discussing their true feelings about feeling like a fraud. Simply knowing you are not the only one with these thoughts can be very helpful.
  2. Separate feelings from fact. Simply because you feel stupid, does not mean you are stupid. This happens to us all.
  3. Recognize when you should feel fraudulent. Instead of taking your self-doubt as a sign of your ineptness, recognize that it might be a normal response to being in a new position or being at a new organization.
  4. Accentuate the positive. As someone who practiced perfectionism for many years, the key here is to not overdo it. Do not obsess over everything being just so. As Dr. Young intoned, “Forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens.”
  5. Develop a new response to failure and mistake making. While this point might seem hard, take a new approach and learn from your mistakes. If you have worked closely with your key stakeholders, they will be much more forgiving if you learn from your mistakes.
  6. Right the rules. You do not have to know everything, especially immediately. As a professional, you did not cede your ability to be wrong, seek help or look to an answer for a question posed to you.
  7. Develop a new script. Get a new tape running inside your head. Dr. Young advises, “When you start a new job or project instead of thinking for example, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.””
  8. Visualize success. Borrow from athletes, picture yourself making a successful presentation or calmly posing your question in class. It sure beats picturing impending disaster and will help with performance-related stress.
  9. Reward yourself. Break the cycle of continually seeking and then dismissing validation outside of yourself by learning to pat yourself on the back.
  10. Fake it ‘til you make it. This is not the Elizabeth Holmes-Theranos fraud scam. This is “understanding that courage comes from taking risks. Change your behavior first and allow your confidence to build.”

As a final point, I want to emphasize that it is certainly acceptable to have moments fraught with doubt. That is only human. Always remember that you did not get to a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), or other significant, position without some serious skills. But most of all, do not keep such doubts to yourself. Reach out to trusted friends and advisors. Share your concerns. Some of the most significant relationships I have are with friends who showed vulnerability to me and I to them. You can do the same

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2020