The Impostor Syndrome

Virginia Gault’s article in today’s Globe and Mail provides good advice on what both management and employees can do to combat the impostor syndrome.

The impostor syndrome – “the constant fear of being exposed as a fraud despite a solid record of achievement” – afflicts “any demanding workplace culture, where high achievers are left on their own to sink of swim,” according to Diane Zorn, a faculty development director at York University.

High achievers left on their own to sink or swin. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this is the reality in all too many consulting companies. And I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that it is also a challenge for my company.

So, what do we do about it?

First, we have replaced the standard performance review process with a career development process that puts a tight focus on our employees’ own objectives. We bring employees together with their managers no less frequently than every six months to discuss what is going well, what is not going as well, what each employee wants to achieve in the coming year and how we can support this.

But career growth is a day by day affair. So, we encourage managers to meet regularly on a one to one basis with the people for whom they are responsible. And we make employee retention and career growth a criterion on which managers’ own performance is assessed. Managers have part of their compensation at risk based on their success in retaining employees and helping them to grow on the job.

We also have established a relationship with a career coach. When people indicate an interest in having a career coach, the company will engage the coach to work with that person. We established this relationship about six months ago and we’re hoping that, by having a relationship with one coach, she will gain extra insight into our work environment that she can apply as she coaches our employees.

These are just some of the things we do to create a supportive environment that will counter the “sink or swim on your own” culture. We know that we’re not perfect and that we have much more to do. I’d be interested in hearing about what others are doing in this area.

  • It was a very interesting article. I’m sure we’ve all exhibited some of those symptoms at one time or another. If you haven’t, then you probably have “megalomaniac syndrome” and that’s a whole other post!

    As part of Joe’s management team, I take people development very seriously, but I wouldn’t say I have it completely figured out. A great resource I’ve come across recently is Manager Tools ( They have a fantastic podcast and the site has a bunch of great tools (for free) that the hosts reference in their podcasts. It’s worth checking out. I’ve started using the “effective meeting method” and I’ve scheduled one-on-ones with my direct reports based on the Manager Tools system. Definitely worth a look for anyone managing teams big or small.

  • Interesting stuff and particularly relevant to a consulting organization. While the imposter syndrome can be a problem, I think it’s a more manageable malady than the converse where someone thinks they know much more than they actually do. I find that you can usually group people in one of four categories: 1. Those who know that they know – (reserved for the rare geniuses in our world); 2. Those who know that they don’t know – (home to most of us who understand that we may not have all the answers but we know how to find them); 3. Those who don’t know that they know – (hard core imposter syndrome victims here); and 4. Those who don’t know that they don’t know – (we all know people in this camp and they can wreak havoc if they’re given too much latitude). Understanding in which category you, your colleagues, and even your clients, reside is important, starting with ourselves. After all, we can’t remove the speck from someone else’s eye until we’ve removed the twig from our own (or something like that).