Impostor Syndrome strikes again

Kathryn Crawford Saxer A Little Kindness, Career Management

A CNN reporter emailed asking whether she could interview me about impostor syndrome. My first thought was: “I don’t know anything about impostor syndrome!”

Which is, of course, a great example of impostor syndrome — that panicky feeling that you’re a fraud, that you’re faking it (and that CNN is going to find out!). In my executive coaching practice, I’ve found that, paradoxically, impostor syndrome tends to intensify as you become more senior and expert in your work.

“I call it ‘nice people syndrome,’” I told that reporter. “I tend to see it in clients who know enough to know how much they don’t know.”

Impostor syndrome is likely related to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a form of cognitive bias where “poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is,” wrote then-Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in their 1999 paper’s abstract. (Here’s a great video explaining the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

Interestingly, as people gain skills and expertise, this cognitive bias can flip: This intermediate-to-expert person’s actual abilities are greater than their perceived abilities. These senior professionals don’t think they are as skilled as they actually are — and they destructively compare themselves to others whom they perceive to be more expert.

And that’s where impostor syndrome flourishes.

It could be related to recent research that found diverse groups of people make better decisions than homogenous groups — and are also far less confident in the decisions they made. “They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong,” writes Steven Johnson in his immensely interesting 2018 book, “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most.” “Sometimes the easiest way to be wrong is to be certain you are right.”

“Is there an upside to impostor syndrome?” the CNN reporter asked me. “Is there a positive impact?”

That’s when I described my “nice person syndrome” theory. Maybe impostor syndrome helps keep us a little bit humble, reminds us of all we don’t yet know, despite our expertise. Maybe it slows us down, and opens us to different perspectives and solutions, when we might be overly confident that we are right.

“So how do you coach it when you see it in your clients?” the reporter asked.

I described the four-step process that I use with my clients (and myself!):

Step 1: Recognize impostor syndrome in the moment. If you have a panicky feeling that your accomplishments are actually a fluke, you may have caught a bout of impostor syndrome.

Step 2: Dispute it with evidence. List your skills, your accomplishments, your experience, the people you respect who respect your work.

So, for example, when I got that email from the CNN reporter, I thought to myself, “Well, I’m pretty well-read on the topic; I’ve coached scores of clients through it; I’ve written about it in my weekly column here; and I’ve given talks about it to some of the largest employers in the city.” In other words, I do, actually, know a thing or two about impostor syndrome.

Step 3: Laugh at it. I told my husband that I was getting on a call with CNN to talk about impostor syndrome and that I didn’t know anything it — and we laughed and laughed.

Step 4: Power through. You can’t let impostor syndrome stop you. You have to speak up in that meeting; you have to present that idea; you have to apply for that role you’re mostly qualified for; you have to demand that job title; you have to ask for that raise.

You have to say yes to that CNN interview.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.