Practitioner viewpoint

22 September 2020

The little voice in your head making you unsure of your competence can have destructive effects. Louise Ward takes a look at what you can do to combat this imposter.

SO, I want you to picture this. You’re sat in a meeting surrounded by colleagues discussing a difficult issue. Everyone is contributing and interacting, but you’re not sure what you have to offer. Then a little voice in your head asks “what are you doing here? Look at these people! They’re all way more competent that you – out of your league”, and a chill runs down your back as the little voice asks “what if they find out that you don’t know what you’re doing? What if they discover you’re a fraud?”, and a nagging seed of self-doubt is planted in your mind ready to surface later, often again and again.

Sound familiar? Quite probably. What I’m describing is a phenomenon known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’. It was first described by psychologists Suzanne Innes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s and was originally thought to affect mostly high performing women. However it’s now recognised to be much more common, with up to 70% of people likely to experience at least one episode in their lives. 

Imposter syndrome is quite simply an internalised belief that you aren’t as competent as others believe you to be, and an associated anxiety of being exposed as a fraud. It actually tends to affect normally confident people, and is quite different to social anxiety as it tends to be linked to work and professional competence rather than social interaction. People with a tendency towards perfectionism are more likely to experience imposter syndrome, as well as those with experience of highly pressurised, driven, work and educational environments where there is a big focus on excellence and consistent achievement. But it can also be associated with a new job, promotion or other changes that place you in an unfamiliar position or situation.

The big problem with imposter syndrome is that it can drive a vicious circle. Because you feel insecure you’re likely to drive yourself to work harder, prepare more thoroughly, achieve more. But the cruel thing is that achievement doesn’t mitigate the feelings of self-doubt, so you carry on driving yourself harder into a downward spiral of unhappiness, anxiety and even the risk of long term physical and mental ill health.

The good news is that you’re not suffering alone! Imposter syndrome is loads more common than you might think, and there is lots that you can do to mitigate it’s destructive effects. 

  • Step 1 – don’t worry in silence! Call it out, talk about it, confide in someone that you trust. There is a lot to be said for the old adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’
  • Step 2 – recognise your value as an individual. We don’t have to be clones to be successful or effective. The very best teams have a mixture of people with a variety of styles, skills and expertise. Learn about your own natural personality, thinking and communication style, and gain an appreciation of the value that this brings in a collaborative setting. Once you understand the strengths and challenges of your own style, then you can think about how this aligns with your colleagues and peers, and learn how you can adapt your approach when necessary to support collaboration or achieve a goal. Explore your own core values too. What drives you? What underpins your thoughts and feelings? And how do you demonstrate this in your behaviours?

Hopefully this will enable you to relax and operate naturally in the work environment, which in turn will promote effective interaction with others.

The trouble is that when you’re suffering from imposter syndrome you tend to try to emulate those around you in order to ‘fit in’. Their style won’t be a natural fit for you, so you’re likely to come across as awkward or insincere, causing others to react and behave awkwardly with you – thus fuelling your feelings of imposter syndrome! And the vicious circle goes on. 

By relaxing and being confident in the value of your natural style, and of course your professional and technical skills, you’ll come across to others in a much more positive way, promoting effective engagement and a working relationship that will mitigate your feelings of imposter syndrome.

Of course, you should always seek professional help if you are suffering from serious anxiety or depression. But for may of us imposter syndrome is just a phase in our personal and professional development, and by being open about it we can help each other to grow and develop in a way that enhances both individual and business performance.

Louise Ward is the health, safety and environment director at Siemens. For more information visit,