Why (Accurately) Recognizing Achievement Can Bolster Success

As I looked around, I noticed a room of at least 50 professionals (including executives) scribbling furiously. Staring down at my own notebook, I had used the page to sparse out a packet of M&M’s by color, immediately sending me into the memories I had of doing this same activity as a child. In the midst of blaming myself for my blatant disregard for this leadership workshop instructor, my neighbor returned from the restroom.

She whispered, “Hey, I think I missed something… did she tell us what ‘illusion of transparency’ means?” It only took her a millisecond to look down and see my candy-mosaic masterpiece and begin to say “oh, never mind…”

“It’s the tendency to believe others are aware of what we’re thinking. Its why people tend to under-communicate or misrepresent their own ideas, assuming people we’re talking to are more clued in than they really are.”

After some initial surprise, she jotted down what I said. Not even 10 seconds later, the instructor says “Illusion of transparency is another mental bias. We essentially think others can read our minds. Which may sound crazy, but I bet all of you have been on the receiving end of incomplete or incoherent instructions… but it’s usually just a symptom of this bias.”

“Have you taken this workshop before?” my neighbor whispers. “No,” I respond, “I thought most people know this stuff.” Looking around, it was in fact confirmed that far from most people ‘know this stuff,’ and I began digging deeper into what made me believe that fact.

This led me down a vortex of online research, questioning friends and colleagues, and self-reflection; I culminated in the realization that I was unknowingly swimming in my version of Imposter Syndrome.

So, what exactly is this phenomenon (not technically a diagnosable syndrome) that has recently gotten so much attention?

The way I’ve explained it to clients is having a misalignment of one’s sense of achievement or aptitude with the reality of qualifications on paper or from experience. People feel that they will somehow be caught or exposed as a fraud when reaching or trying to reach a certain level of success.

In my case above (during the leadership workshop), I was blind to the fact that I was much more of an expert on a particular topic than many others who I perceived as competent or more competent than myself.

(Image Source: Medium)

An expert on the topic, Dr. Valerie Young, describes five versions of Imposter Syndrome and how they can manifest. Regardless of the specific type, the outcomes are harmful either in behavior, internal stress levels, or both.

My road through Imposterville began as a child, after I was labeled “gifted” at 7 years old and shoved into a new educational trajectory. Spending many years being heralded as “naturally smart,” I fell into spirals of despair when subjects did not instantaneously come easy. Instead of enduring the stress of looking like a fake-smart kid, I avoided those subjects with mastery. In peak ridiculousness, I took an exam to culminate high school and begin college at 16, just to avoid facing AP US History and Government in junior/senior year of high school.

Throughout my education and career in years to follow, I have experienced all five of the aforementioned imposters infiltrate my mind. Between my research vortex and navigating out of my own skewed thinking with a myriad of interventions, I have developed tools to recognize this phenomenon in professional setting and implement needed remedies.

Below are several recurring themes when speakers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals translate their Imposter Syndrome into their work: 

Overcommunication:

From overly-complicated presentation slides, to unnecessarily lengthy product descriptions, the necessity to prove competence or thoroughness can be debilitating.

I recently met with someone who was preparing for a large donation pitch supporting their non-profits initiative. The work the organization had done until that point was impressive, and both their team and stakeholders knew how valuable the work had been. Nevertheless, when they brought me the first draft of the presentation, I was floored to see and hear how much extensive detail they planned on presenting to the potential donors.

In attempt to prove both their competence and the worth of the organization, the unintended consequence would have been drowning the audience in needless detail. Unsurprisingly, the descriptions within the website and their bio mirrored this pattern, and we had to restructure several pieces of existing and future content with the assumption that audiences do not need to be convinced that the organization was impressive and worth investment. 

The not-so-humble brag:

Whether working with colleagues or crafting a brand, the tendency to list achievements excessively can be off-putting and occasionally offensive.

There’s often someone on a team or in a position of leadership that continuously speaks to how much they work, how late they stay in the office, or what portion of a project they completed. Some do it to be pompous, but many are just trying to communicate their value to others (and usually themselves). Although referencing a specific instance or project can innocuously provide context, constant explanations of contribution can be poisonous to team dynamics. We can apply a similar stream of thinking to companies/brands that over-do it with rambling about all of their magical attributes.

Creating safe space for feedback, both one-on-one and in a group, is a potential way for people to feel seen and recognized without needing to overexert their usefulness. In the same vein, finding ways for consumers to experience a brand can present an alternative interaction to reading through a manifesto of how special they are.

Perfecting the non-perfectible:

There is no such thing as a perfect presentation, product, or person. The imposter inside convinces people there must be.

In working with an artisan craftsperson who was releasing a new line of handmade décor, we developed a brand and product plan that was best suited to the largest portion of their existing following. Days leading up to the release (when we agreed everything was done and ready to launch), they would go back to fidget with different minutiae, removing and re-uploading slightly different versions of the same photos or product descriptions.

When we sat down, I understood this was in effort to mitigate any potential of competitors or even consumers to claim that the products were in any way subpar. In reality, they were an incredible craftsperson and it took doing some exercises in expectation setting and road mapping before the launch could happen in peace.

Overcommitting, and falling short:

Setting up the perfect conditions of failure with the self-fulfilling prophecy, attempting to do too much inevitably means not meeting your goals.

My most recent client was asked to give a talk in front of hundreds of people at a conference. As we began to prepare for the talk, they arrived to the first meeting with a novel-length list of topics to cover. In crafting the structure and content, they became worried that we were cutting out too much inevitably leaving the audience disappointed.

The reality is, the talk was limited in time and there was an entire day of different talks the audience could attend. Trying to cram everything was setting them up to fall short. Once we stepped back, outlined an audience assessment, and determined the desired outcomes, the talk content and length became manageable and achievable.

Eventually, Imposter Syndrome is experienced by most people in the professional world. However, recognizing how this phenomenon manifests and implementing the necessary interventions can make the Imposter quiet and powerless.