Do You Have an Imposter Complex?

Sue is a go-getter. She joined her company five years ago and did whatever it took to get the job done. As the company grew, the owner plugged Sue in wherever he needed help, and within those five short years, she was promoted to a senior-level position. From the outside, Sue’s rapid rise to senior leadership looks like a dream come true. But to Sue, it all feels a little surreal. In fact, her high status and authority have outpaced her ability to wear it comfortably.

Jack has been in sales for all of his ten years in business. The firm he works for suddenly lost its president and a dramatic decision was made to pluck Jack from his sales role and make him president of the company. Jack has managed his sales team but has never had to deal with managing a large, internal system. He is frustrated by the policies, procedures and pace. He has not had the experience of learning by gradual escalation through the ranks.

In my own case, I started writing this column just two years after moving from education to business. Originally, I pitched the column to newspapers as a job-hunting column, since the economy was in a recession in the 80s and I had just completed a rigorous and successful career change. Once the initial five columns had been published (much to my surprise), the business editor asked if I could keep on writing about other job/career-related issues. As I look back over 30 years of writing a weekly column, I realize the first five years I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask, “Who do you think you are writing a column with so little experience?” Even after the column was picked up for syndication, I had misgivings–I felt like an imposter.

How about you? Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever found yourself in a job or a project that seemed beyond your own abilities? Were you worried about failing…and about being “found out?” If so, you’ve suffered from the Imposter Complex, too.

But consider this: if you have felt this way, I think you must be doing something right. You wouldn’t have been thrust, asked, or pushed into it, if others didn’t think you were up to the job. It’s just your self-confidence that has to catch up with their view.

Sometimes “imposters” grow into their jobs over time, but some make big mistakes in an attempt to overcompensate. For example, in Sue’s case, she holds back and doesn’t speak up and assert her authority when she needs to. Because she fears looking like she is trying to be a “big shot” to her peers, she intentionally pulls back. As a result, some of her employees are taking advantage of the situation and overstepping their bounds. The owner wants more from her.

Jack has gone in the other direction. His frustration has resulted in outbursts and demands. His employees are nervous around him, and they fear anything they do could set him off. They avoid him and are overcautious when giving any input. They seek his approval on simple decisions, which results in even slower productivity.

In my own case, I tried to overcompensate by packing every column with too much information and I used a “professional voice” instead of a “conversational voice.”

Several years into the column, a writer friend of mine said, “Joan, you’re much different in person than you are in your writing. Why don’t you write like you speak?” It seemed like a scary concept. If I did that, readers might think I didn’t know what I was talking about. But with his encouragement, I started changing my style and now what you see is what you get.

The lesson here? Perhaps the only way to grow into a big job is to stay grounded in what got you there in the first place. Do the best work you can. Learn as fast as you can. Ask for help and don’t pretend to know all the answers. Stay who you are. The rest will take care of itself.

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Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee-based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized training (leadership skills, presentation skills, internal consulting skills & facilitation skills), team conflict resolution and retreat facilitation. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (800) 348-1944,, or