Are you afraid you will be found out?


imposter syndrome Do you ever stop in your tracks and think, “What if they find out I don’t know as much as they think I do?

If your answer is yes, you are in good company. Many of us suffer from impostor syndrome. It most frequently happens when we attribute our success to outside factors like luck, the mistakes of others, and fate, etc. instead of to our own skills, knowledge, hard work and tenacity.

Here are some of the common places where the impostor syndrome thrives.

“who am I to…?”

I was recently working with an emerging leader in a one-to-one hot seat strategy session. Her dilemma was that she had skills, experience and knowledge to help a new hire in her small office be more successful as a contributing member of the team. However this leader had not been formally assigned to provide guidance to new hires. So she wanted to support this new person but was questioning if it was okay to do so since she hadn’t been asked. She was clearly in the “who am I to do that” place.

Hot seat strategy sessions are part of the work I do with emerging leaders in the Lead, Empower, Inspire Leadership Series. Each session lasts 15 minutes or less and it is an opportunity for a participant to bring forward a thought, concept or problem they are struggling with in their work or life. But instead of spending a lot of time processing, describing or explaining, I go with laser focus into the underlying barrier, roadblock or concern.

In this case, it was clear to me that the participant was in the “who am I” place of impostor syndrome. And wanting outside validation instead of being able to stand in her own experience, skills and knowledge to help another employee become a more valuable part of the team.

I asked her to give me three concrete examples of why she was qualified to help this new employee. That was easy for her and the three examples rolled off her tongue.

  1. She’d been successful within the organization for several years.
  2. She’d managed many projects similar to the one the new hire was learning to manage.
  3. Her strengths were attention to detail and organization, which complimented the new hire’s skill of building relationships.

As she listed the reasons, it became very clear to her – almost in a comical way – that yes, she had something valuable to add. And yes, she was creating her own roadblock to stepping into an important and valuable mentoring role with this new hire by questioning, “Who am I?”.

I could see the relief wash over her. Once she answered the question, she was ready to establish her next steps (strategy).

  1. Let go of the questioning that holds her back and keeps her small.
  2. Talk to her director about supporting the new hire.
  3. Partner with her new colleague so both their strengths are maximized and the goals of the organization are achieved.


Impostor syndrome is fueled by comparison. Your cousin’s Facebook announcement about a promotion quickly turns into self-flagellating about not progressing on your own career path quickly enough. A teammate receiving accolades for finding a problem on the profit and loss spreadsheet causes you to beat yourself up for not being good enough at reading financial statements – even though you and everyone else knows your strength is customer service!

Comparison is to self-confidence as water is to fire.

Author Iyanla Vanzant calls comparison an act of violence against the self.  Next time you are tempted to turn the strengths and successes of others into a recrimination against yourself, breathe and bring your attention back to the only person you have any control over – you.

Just as you would add logs to keep a fire roaring, remind yourself of the strengths and skills you possess. Then focus your energy and attention on building those skills.

Playing small out of fear of failure

I spend a lot of time working with emerging leaders who are still playing small. They don’t stand firmly in their unique space because they are so afraid of not being able to do it all well.

Equally important to knowing your strengths is being open about your vulnerabilities or places where you need help to grow. As I watch the presidential campaign, I am not trying to determine the candidate who “knows it all”. I’m trying to determine who is the candidate that is self-aware and honest enough to admit what aren’t their strengths and  surround themselves with people who do have those strengths. In other words, I’m not looking to get behind a faker.

When you overcompensate for or cover up the places where you aren’t skilled or strong you are actually fostering mistrust in your peers or staff.  This also erodes your self-trust, hence that imposter voice screaming for your attention. But if you choose to be aware and open about both your strengths and your gaps and ask for help and mentorship where you need it, you are choosing to not play it safe but instead to step into an amazing trajectory of growth, development and opportunity. And people will line up to help you be successful!

So short of coaching or a hot seat session, here are some other steps you can take today.

Get insight from others:

  1. Ask people who know you to tell you what they see as your three greatest strengths.
  2. Ask them to identify three areas in which you would benefit from support or collaboration.
  3. Learn about the strengths of people around you so you know who to partner or collaborate with in areas where you may not be as strong or passionate.

Increase your self-awareness:

  1. Make a list of the top 4-5 pieces of evidence you have that indicate you have expertise and knowledge.
  2. Identify the top 3-5 areas where you may not be strong. Be honest instead of pretending you are interested or passionate about these things.

When your impostor voice tries to keep you small, pull out your list and lean in to your strengths. When new opportunities and challenges come your way, be realistic and honest about what aspects are within your existing strengths and where you will be working on your edge. Then jump in!

Ready to stop playing small?  Let go of the impostor syndrome today. There is no role for an impostor when you are open and honest with yourself about your strengths and skills.