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Embracing the Imposter

Optimize Blog - April 8, 2011 - 0 comments

Those of you old enough to remember the classic Commodore 64 may be excited to hear that it is making a return. Whether the thing actually was a classic or whether we just remember this early PC through rose tinted spectacles, its’ return is perhaps a bit of marketing sizzle for those into retro computing style.
Old but stylish?
The good news is that the clunk has gone and inside the classic taupe exterior lurks quite a different specification than the original. The machine’s internal hardware will be based around a dual-core Intel Atom D525, a chip typically found in notebook computers. Unsurprisingly the 1.8Ghz chip is far faster than the 8-bit 1MHz MOS 6502 processor used in the 80’s original.
The new and improved updated version will run Windows 7 but it also has an emulator capable of playing games written for its ancestor. Endearingly for some, along with the iconic colored outer casing, it will have the same “clicky” keyboard familiar to anyone who used the older C64 or its predecessor, the Vic 20.
So the new Commodore will look much like the original but it is an imposter. Strangely, this got us thinking about imposters at work. Back in 2008 the New York Times ran a great article on managers and professionals who suffer from feelings of fraudulence or inadequacy at work and we occasionally come across this ‘imposter syndrome’ with clients.
These are generally senior managers in their late 30’s or early 40’s who have been promoted to a new role in which their experience is being tested to the limits. Despite support from their bosses and receiving positive feedback that they have great operational, strategic and people skills… they are often beset with self doubt.
So what is the real issue for these leaders? Often they have concerns that somehow the skills and knowledge required don’t really exist or they wonder why they were chosen over others for the role and secretly think that the company made a mistake. But, perhaps, these feelings are not necessarily a bad thing – in fact our experiences of working with those with ‘Imposter Syndrome’ are often very rewarding. Typically the individuals are alert, thoughtful and self-aware of their management style. They maintain an element of humility that garners great respect from the people in their teams and colleagues.
However, the pressure associated with feeling like a fake can be debilitating and, if that phenomenon is coupled with the tendency to be a perfectionist, personal goals may be set at excessively high and unrealistic levels – leading to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors when the goals are not achieved. Perfectionism, then, can turn these individuals with Imposter Syndrome into workaholics.
There is no doubt, as we have said many times, that the business world is becoming ever more complex and, for many, the desire to control things (when it is becoming increasingly clear that it is more difficult to control anything) leads to frustration and a questioning of one’s own ability. We don’t subscribe to the notion of ‘imposter-ism’ as a reflection of an anxious personality or a cultural stereotype but rather we understand that complexity breeds self doubt.
The cost of those with Imposter Syndrome to their companies in terms of unrealized human potential can be enormous. When qualified workers fear taking a calculated risk, get caught in the ‘expert trap’ and are prone to perfectionism and procrastination, there’s a leak in the business’s human talent pool.
Some behaviors that might be seen are:
• a dismissive attitude when praised
• a feeling that peers with the same responsibilities are more mature
• a reluctance to accept new responsibilities or challenges for fear of failure
• an unnatural reaction to constructive criticism
• worrying that others will begin to realize their shortcomings
So, what can be done? Well, the first step like any move toward a change is a bit of self awareness.
Once you recognize that there may be an development issue instead of telling yourself they are going to ‘find you out’ or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything. Then consider the context. Most people will experience occasions where they don’t feel 100% confident and there may be times when you feel out of your element. In these instances self-doubt is a normal reaction.
You are entitled to make mistakes occasionally – so forgive yourself. Also, don’t forget to reward yourself for getting the important things right. At all times, keep your eye on the outcome and focus on doing the right thing. By doing the right thing you can keep yourself focused and calm, maintain a sense of context and will be better able to treat any potential shortcomings as an opportunity to develop.

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