Do you ever think you’re incompetent?

by Stephanie Zillman03 Jul 2012

It’s all too common among many high-achieving career women – a feeling of inadequacy despite numerous successes and examples of competence. Those with the syndrome are convinced they are frauds; they do not deserve the success they have achieved, and any moment now, will feel a tap on the shoulder telling them they’ve been exposed.

Imposter syndrome is not an officially recognised psychological disorder, but is an affliction felt by many successful professional women. At an International Women’s Day luncheon hosted in Sydney last year by the Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications (FITT) association, the problem was discussed at length to murmurs of agreement around the hall. Fiona Floyd, chief information officer at Suncorp Life, led a discussion on the issue and charged senior women with the task of standing tall, raising their glasses to success, and most importantly, supporting young women coming up through the ranks.

In recent years, an intriguing number of high-profile women have emerged from the woodwork, prepared to speak openly about the struggle to believe in one’s own competence. One example is physicist and senior academic at Cambridge University, Professor Athene Donald, who recently wrote about her own struggle with imposter syndrome on her blog. “We have risen to a degree of seniority that means we have less to fear,” Donald told the Daily Mail. “What I find really interesting about the response to that blog was that suddenly everyone wanted to put up their hand and says “yes, me too”, which I wasn’t really expecting,” she added. Admitting publicly to what could be seen as a weakness may seem to some like a bad career move, but Donald said by doing so, senior women can help younger colleagues see that self-doubt is common and needn’t hold them back.

So why do so many women continue to brush aside compliments, and try to assure others that any successes are flukes, luck, and being in the right place at the right time? For some, it seems like good manners to be humble and reticent about one’s success – but there’s a fine line between self-deprecation and self-destruction. Some ‘imposters’ work themselves to the point of burnout, never satisfied that their best is enough. Others avoid speaking up in meetings or seeking promotion, even when they’re more than qualified.

Importantly, it’s not just women who experience strong feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy – studies have indicated that some 31% of men also struggle with confidence*. Elizabeth Harrin, corporate project manager and author of Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Ten Strategies to Stop Feeling like a Fraud at Work estimated that around a third of copies are bought by men. But all the evidence suggests its women who are the most likely to let it undermine their careers.

Take the test – do you have imposter syndrome?

  • I hope nobody finds out I’m not as good as they think I am.
  • I hate challenges. I don’t have what it takes to overcome them.
  • The cool things I have done in the past all happened by accident.
  • I hate making mistakes. I am a perfectionist.
  • When people criticise my work, they’re saying I suck as a person.
  • The other people I work with are way smarter/better/more awesome than I am.
  • When people praise my work they’re just being nice.
  • Nobody likes a braggart.


*2011 survey of senior managers by the Institute of Leadership & Management

*Checklist source: Geoff Crane, cited in Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Ten Strategies to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud at Work by Elizabeth Harrin.


  • by Max Underhill 3/07/2012 3:15:31 PM

    The imposter syndrome is the same cause as high recruitment disengagement. Employees or potential employees do not have a well defined specification of the role or of what is expected of them. An outcome-based competency position description that incorporates the performance measures (in a format that allows the employee to manage their own performance - empowerment)will let the employee know how they are performing before the "boss". Tell me what you want, specify it properly, let me get on and do it and I will tell you how I have performed, good or bad. I will know when I need help and where to get it. Would we go out to buy a piece of equipment without a proper defined specification - but we seem to be happy leaving people in this grey zone.

  • by Popscorn 6/07/2012 8:40:13 AM

    Interesting article. Worth mentioning that plenty of male colleagues suffer the same way.

  • by Catherine Moynihan 9/07/2012 2:50:34 PM

    I am an organisational development consultant and Executive/Leadership coach and I certainly observe and discuss this with many senior women whom I work with.
    Feeling aligned and integrated as a person is key to success...feeling an imposter is a key inhibitor to this, it is time consuming and energy sapping Hence strategies to navigate through this will provide leaders (male and female) with the opportunity to unleash the shackles of this 'performance doom loop'.
    So what is the may ask?
    It is my experience that clearly defining individual strengths and personal goals and intentionally creating opportunities to reinforce and actively notice them is critical. Furthermore proactively seeking clarification on performance expectations (from Boards, CEOs and senior leaders) is critical.
    In the absence of clear performance goals, which is unfortunately often the case we are presented with an opportunity to drive and define it ourselves. Hence a more individually empowering strategy is to drive the performance discussion clear on what you want to be known for...the work that you excel at and set personal performance expectations aligned to this which ALSO drive organisational and individual success and checking these off with the business.
    This can be complimented by establishing a ‘Personal Brand and Reputation map’ which defines key stakeholder expectations, evidence of delivering on these and pathways to communicate and leverage success stories so that success & 'feeling' successful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    I wish you all the best with this ongoing journey. Know you are not alone, know also that there are strategies to find a more satisfied and integrated you; this is a ‘condition’ you do not have to accept.

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