3 ways to defeat imposter syndrome — and build executive presence

May 11, 2021

By Oliver Rowe, Journal of Accountancy

Many workers — including accountants — at times doubt their abilities. Even after years of training, people can “feel like a fraud” in the workplace.

These are the characteristics of what has been termed “imposter syndrome” or “imposter phenomenon” — the term first used in 1978 by Atlanta-based psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D.

Clance and Imes originally described this internal experience of intellectual fraud as being particularly prevalent and strong among high-achieving women. Today it is recognized as affecting a much broader group of workers.

For Matt Rampe, principal at Rampe Consulting in the United States, while imposter syndrome is not a medical condition, it is very real and affects an estimated 70% of people at some point in their lives.

Rampe, who is speaking on how the syndrome can be overcome at the AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021 conference, said: “Some of the characteristics of imposter syndrome could include self-doubt, inability to realistically assess your competence and skills, attributing your success to external factors, overachieving, or sabotaging your own success.”

Accountants and finance professionals, he suggested, “are very primed for this because often [they’re] very data driven … very analytical, perfectionistic.”

He added: “As part of the job function, you're trained to always have an answer and to always be right. And I think that sets up a great equation for feeling insecure.”

Addressing the problem
Rampe suggests three ways to counter the syndrome:

Focus on your strengths. Often a person’s strengths are invisible to themselves. To “surface” strengths, Rampe recommends using a Gallup strength finder, coaching sessions, or 360 feedback from colleagues or people who know you well. This process takes you out of a place of doubt and into a place of confidence and competence.

Adopt a questioning leadership style. Often imposter syndrome can be triggered by taking on a large project or being promoted — people feel they need to have all the answers on day one. Instead, lead by asking questions, Rampe suggested. “Often you’ll see CEOs do this in the first 90 days. They’ll go and they’ll talk to stakeholders. They’ll talk to customers. They’ll talk to peers. They’ll talk to all kinds of people and get information and say, ‘What’s important for me to know? What’s important to you? What do you think some of the challenges are? What am I missing?’” This not only educates the leader but also takes the pressure off.

Make specific plans. “Imposter syndrome is similar to anxiety … where you’re worrying about a potential future or a negative future,” Rampe said. His advice to “tame it” is to make very specific plans, to ask yourself, “What am I worried is going to happen or what are the areas I know I need to do well in?” Then make a list of everything you’re concerned about and make concrete plans to address those things.

Writing a plan allows you to identify where your gaps are — either in your own skills, or a problem with the team or project you’ve taken over. “If there are realistic gaps in your abilities, you’ve brought it down to [something that’s] manageable and something that's under your control,” Rampe said. If the gaps are only perceived and not real, the plan will reassure you of that, he added.

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