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What to do when you feel like a fraud at work

The Imposter Syndrome is a feeling of inadequacy by high-achieving workers who doubt their credentials


FROM the outside, Bain management consultant Lee Xueling, 33, fits the bill of a high-flying executive by any measure. Eloquent, poised and armed with an MBA from Harvard Business School, she looks like the last person who could be doubting her abilities. But after returning from her sponsored MBA, she was plagued with an irrational anxiety that she was undeserving and not up to the job.

She told BT Weekend: "I was worried that people will find out that I'm not good as they think I am. Or that everything I've done so far was because I've been very lucky. It sounds very silly when you say it aloud, but in your head it seems very real."

To cope with the overwhelming fear of being exposed as the "fraud" that she perceived she was, she constantly worked overtime. This led to a downward spiral which left her even more exhausted and stressed out than before. Even with more hours put in, her performance suffered. Her worst fear - that she was not competent enough - could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy if her boss did not pull her aside one day to tell her that all the pressure she was putting on herself was actually self-imposed.

Ms Lee was suffering from an affliction known as the Imposter Syndrome, and experts say it is a lot more common than we think.

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Trapped in your own mind

Some people fake it till they make it, but some others, like Ms Lee, have a problem that's quite the opposite. The imposter syndrome is described as a feeling of inadequacy by high-achieving individuals who doubt their credentials and professional accomplishments. This results in a fear or anxiety that they may have "slipped through the system" and that they may be found out at any moment.

While everyone might face some insecurity now and then, people with this syndrome experience it more acutely than others. The higher they go up the corporate ladder, the greater their anxiety. Every good thing that has happened such as a promotion or a plum assignment becomes a burden. They are unable to internalise achievements and instead go through life wondering when their luck will finally run out.

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD Andy Yap explained that it is correlated to low self-esteem. Research suggests that low self-esteem may account for why one experiences imposter syndrome. "It's not easily detectable by observers because overtly, the credentials and capabilities of the individuals are tangible and not easily disputed, for example writing several books or winning awards."

Groups of people who are more susceptible to this are perfectionists, individuals from minority groups, women, and even first-born children.

While there has been no study of this phenomenon in Singapore, AP Yap said that it is "not surprising" that many people here will experience the imposter syndrome at some point in their professional careers, given that Singaporeans are cultivated from young to be high achievers in education and work.

He added: "The interesting thing about imposter syndrome is that compared to non-imposters, while imposters experience more anxiety, their performance generally does not differ from that of non-imposters."

The good, bad and the ugly

Psychological well-being aside, people who suffer from it tend to sabotage their careers without realising it. They set impossible goals for themselves to achieve. And when they inevitably fail, they beat themselves up over it and take a much longer time to recover from failures.

When it comes to performance reviews, they get fixated on the one shortcoming instead of the 10 good things they have done. They lose sight of the big picture and get lost in the minutiae. Just as with Ms Lee, they channel all that pent-up fear and worry into clocking more hours. They drown themselves in work, but the results can be questionable. Quantity does not equate quality. Their controlling streak can also affect their teammates and subordinates, who have to deal with a high-strung colleague or boss with unrealistic expectations. This can create tension in the office.

However, AP Yap thinks that there can be some upside to the imposter syndrome. He believes that people who suffer from it will perform better than individuals who are overconfident, in a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

Setting their vision straight

Some people may suffer from varying degrees of the imposter syndrome all their lives. But thankfully for Ms Lee, it was her boss who helped her to see the self-destructive path she was on. After that conversation, she began opening up more to people around her about how she felt.

"In the past, I felt that I had to put on a front and pretend everything was okay. When I started talking to others, I realised this was very common."

While one can't choose his or her boss, it helped to be part of a support network of people that she could be vulnerable with, said Ms Lee. Having an inner circle of people whom she trusted in the workplace to tell her the truth made a big difference to her during that period.

On this note, AP Yap concurred that seeking out accurate feedback was an important step in overcoming imposter syndrome.

Nonetheless, be mindful that repeatedly asking others for affirmation will annoy them, he said. AP Yap recommended that people who suffer from this embrace the concept of being "imperfectly perfect".

People can't be perfect every single time. If you mess up once, there are more opportunities to succeed later. Acknowledge that in most jobs, the process of improving one's performance over time is healthy, he said. This was an area that Ms Lee had to struggle with.

She said: "Imposter syndrome is often linked to perfectionism because you are not compassionate towards yourself."

"A friend once told me: Imagine all the things that you keep saying to yourself, that critical inner voice. Now, would you let someone talk to your best friend like that? If not, why would you talk to yourself like that?"

For those who identify with the imposter syndrome, consciously take note of your inner critic. It may be a harsh world out there, but we don't have to be. Kindness and forgiveness are qualities that are not just extended to others - we need them for ourselves as well.