Managing Imposter Syndrome

CSAETrill12062018dBy Rebecca Harris, CAE and Danielle S. Russell, CAE

How do you internalize your success? Many early-career professionals may put on a brave face while worrying that luck, or worse, dumb luck, got them to where they are and that their success is a house of cards that may, at any moment, come crashing down on their head. Many seasoned professionals may remember these feelings that have been grouped together and coined Imposter Syndrome.

By some estimates, as many as 70% of Millennials identify with some of the common signs of Imposter Syndrome, which include perfectionism, overworking, undermining one’s own achievements, fear of failure, and discounting praise. They convince themselves that their successes are based on luck, timing, or some other factor outside of their control, despite evidence to the contrary.

Imposter Syndrome, also known as Imposter Phenomenon, Fraud Syndrome or the Imposter Experience, is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” According to the literature, there are five types of Imposter Syndrome:

  1. The Perfectionist: Success is rarely satisfying because they believe they could have done even better.
  2. The Superwoman/Man: Convinced they’re phonies among real-deal colleagues, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up.
  3. The Natural Genius: Judge successes based on their abilities as opposed to their efforts. If they have to work hard at something, they assume they must be bad at it.
  4. The Rugged Individualist: Feel as though asking for help reveals their phoniness.
  5. The Expert: Feel they tricked their employer into hiring them and deeply fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.

CSAE Trillium, Young Professionals

On May 16, the Trillium Network’s Young Professionals group gathered at the Toronto Thompson hotel to learn more about Imposter Syndrome and how to manage it. The event started with some networking, which was followed by an interactive and honest discussion on managing Imposter Syndrome, led by ourselves – Rebecca Harris, MA, CAE and Danielle S. Russell, CAE. We discussed how we worked to overcome Imposter Syndrome in our early careers, and offered a safe space for everyone in attendance to share tips, tricks and strategies.

Many professionals will experience one or many of the types of imposter syndrome listed above at some point in their career. And this is not just a syndrome that young professionals face – it can strike at any point in your career. During the YP, event we shared personal stories of our own early-career Imposter Syndrome experiences and how we found the confidence to overcome our fears and insecurities. One of the ways of overcoming Imposter Syndrome is recognizing it and allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to discuss it. We offered the following tools and techniques for managing imposter syndrome:

  • Find Your Tribe – Seek out Peers, Mentors and Mentees
    The CSAE is a great place to do this. Attend events and volunteer on committees to expand your network and work on your skills.
  • Pay Attention to Successes, Not Just Failures (and Track Your Accomplishments)
    We can often focus more on what went wrong than what we’ve accomplished. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Save any positive feedback that you do get in writing so that you can look back on it when you need a reminder of all the positive things you do!
  • Seek and Accept Validation (do not Fish for Compliments)
    Own your accomplishments and accept validation when it is given. Be proud of your work.
  • Identify what’s Shaking your Confidence – Acknowledge Feelings of Imposter Syndrome and Reframe your Thinking.
    Recognizing that you’re dealing with Imposter Syndrome is the first step. Know that you are not alone in feeling this way and work on reframing your thinking to focus on the positives. If there are skills or tasks that are making you feel this way make a concrete plan to address them. Bad at public speaking? Sign up to volunteer on a committee that will give you opportunities to introduce speakers or speak to larger groups.
  • Arm Yourself – Do Your Research and Engage in Professional Development and Life-Long-Learning
    Continue to push yourself to grow and work on any weak spots in your professional arsenal.
  • Remind Yourself that the People Who Got You Here are Competent and Did Not Make a Mistake.
    Feeling like you tricked your boss into hiring you or that they made a mistake? Recognize that the people who hired you and those who helped you get where you are today are competent and good at their jobs. They did not make a mistake. Own your role and if you need to make improvements, do so with your head held high.
  • Take Solace that Imposter Syndrome is a Symptom of Success
    If you’re dealing with imposter syndrome, congratulations! It is a symptom of success and not something you should be embarrassed to feel or afraid of talking about.

For most professionals, there is a turning point in their careers where Imposter Syndrome is no longer something they have to deal with. However, it can be a life-long battle if you don’t learn how to recognize it and utilize the appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with it. Being armed with tools and techniques to battle Imposter Syndrome will allow you to work your way through it much more effectively.

How Leaders Can Help

For those of us in leadership positions, having open conversations about Imposter Syndrome and how it can be effectively dealt with will help the next generation of leaders. As you manage your employees, recognize that Imposter Syndrome may be something they are dealing with. Look for signs and provide positive feedback and an open ear when necessary.

In creating a safe space for honest discussion, we identified some of the pinch-points for early-career association executives and suggest some of the following actions that can be taken to avoid them:

  • Do be clear about why someone has been assigned a skill-stretching task or promoted to a more senior position. Identify and communicate why and how additional trust or responsibilities have been earned.
  • Don’t leave your staff alone to deal with a board of directors or committee. Provide them with autonomy and a reasonable amount of responsibility, balanced with strategies to manage difficult personalities, and best practices for volunteer management.
  • Do provide clear and unambiguous feedback about your employee’s strengths and weaknesses and ensure that early-stage professionals have access to tools and resources.
  • Don’t create an environment where your staff are afraid to fail, or worse, afraid to self-report an error or mistake. Be clear about how mistakes should be dealt with, and the scale and size of errors, where it would be appropriate for a young professional to try to find their own solution.
  • Do provide praise or reward for small and large accomplishments, ensure that everyone understands that their contributions are valued and important.

One of the best ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome is to build a network of mentors and peers. If you are a young professional, we strongly encourage you to join the CSAE Trillium’s YP Network to build and expand your network, to find common ground and to identify shared experiences, and to attend events aimed at creating opportunities for Young Professionals in the association and not-for-profit space. Senior leaders are encouraged to share information on the YP Network’s events, and to make it possible for their staff to attend.

Rebecca Harris, MA, CAE is the Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Residences Treating Youth (OARTY). In 2012 she was presented with CSAE Trillium’s Emerging Talent Award for an Executive Member. She volunteers extensively with the Trillium Network and helped found the Young Professionals Network, serving as Chair for 2 years. She is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) and possesses an MA degree in Art History and BFA degree in Fine Arts. Follow Rebecca on twitter @beckymharris

Danielle S. Russell, CAE is the Senior Association Manager at Association and Events Management, a Toronto based Association Management Company. In 2011 she was presented with CSAE Trillium’s inaugural Emerging Talent Award for an Executive Member; as a Trillium Board Member she chaired the Summer Summit in 2013, and helped found the Young Professionals Network, serving as Vice-Chair for 2 years. Follow her on Twitter @dani__russell, or