4 Signs You Might Have Imposter Syndrome

10 Jan 4 Signs You Might Have Imposter Syndrome

I have found in my work coaching leadership teams that imposter syndrome is the dirty little secret of overachievers. Do you have it? If you do, you are not alone. Many leaders struggle with this at one point or another; from emerging leaders all the way to the C-Suite. According to Margie Warrell, author of Stop Playing Safe, “Having to live with a nagging fear of being ‘found out’ as not being as smart or talented or deserving or experienced or (fill-in-the-blank) as people think is a common phenomenon. So common, in fact, that the term ‘Impostor Syndrome’ was coined to describe it back in the 1980s. Indeed, researchers believe that up to 70% of people have suffered from it at some point … Apart from narcissists, super low achievers, and outright crazies, no-one’s immune to Imposter Syndrome.” But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Based on my observations and coaching with leadership teams over the past two decades, here are some of the early warning signs I see business leaders display when they feel they’re in over their heads:

  1. They become over controlling
    In times of uncertainty, people will gravitate toward the things they can control. For example, I work with one CEO who runs a multi-million dollar company and decided at one point that he needed to approve every P.O. in the company. Another CEO, who runs a company with tens of thousands of employees decided that every Director level position had to be pre-approved by him. Both of these leaders were trying to manage their anxiety by over-managing details.
  2. They become hypersensitive to criticism
    Nobody likes to be criticized. But imposter syndrome is not about a general aversion to being criticized. It’s about overreaction to the slightest form of critique. This may manifest as being defensive, blaming others to move attention off of themselves, or a fast escalation to a destructive conflict. Leaders who are struggling with imposter syndrome are often trying to cover up their own shortfalls. So when you bring up a better way to do something, they hear it through their fear-of-failure filter and it strikes a nerve. Criticism aims a spotlight on the very weakness (real or perceived) they don’t want anyone else to see.
  3. They protect their turf
    When leaders are concerned that they are not living up to expectations, they are less likely to want someone to play in their sandbox. They may ban people from their area and push back when asked questions about what’s going on in their world. The thought that may be running through their heads is, “If I can just keep them at bay until I can figure this out, everything will be OK.”
  4. They get caught up in analysis paralysis
    Analysis Paralysis is a classic symptom because when leaders experience self-doubt, they don’t trust themselves to make decisions. When feeling threatened, they play it safe and pull the emergency brake. Whether that threat is real or imagined their brains kick in to protect them from potential injury. Neuroscience tells us that when we feel threatened we think with a less sophisticated part of our brain and not the creative part that can actually help us. So to protect against making a terrible mistake; leaders may over analyze, delay decisions, and try to get ever more data to justify their actions before moving forward. It’s a protective mechanism to buy time. They call it due diligence, but there’s a point that it becomes paralyzing and the organization suffers.

Leaders can recognize these signs and overcome the imposter syndrome. Want to know how? Check out this blog on 5 Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome


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