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The dangers of feeling like a fake



In many walks of life-and business is no exception-there are high achievers who believe that they are complete fakes. To the outside observer, these individuals appear to be remarkably accomplished; often they are extremely successful leaders with staggering lists of achievements. These neurotic impostors--as psychologists call them--are not guilty of false humility. The sense of being a fraud is the flip side of giftedness and causes a great many talented, hardworking, and capable leaders to believe that they don't deserve their success. "Bluffing" their way through life (as they see it), they are haunted by the constant fear of exposure. With every success, they think, "I was lucky this time, fooling everyone, but will my luck hold? When will people discover that I'm not up to the job?" In his career as a management professor, consultant, leadership coach, and psychoanalyst, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has found neurotic impostors at all levels of organizations. In this article, he explores the subject of neurotic imposture and outlines its classic symptoms: fear of failure, fear of success, perfectionism, procrastination, and workaholism. He then describes how perfectionist overachievers can damage their careers, their colleagues' morale, and the bottom line by allowing anxiety to trigger self-handicapping behavior and cripple the very organizations they're trying so hard to please. Finally, Kets de Vries offers advice on how to limit the incidence of neurotic imposture and mitigate its damage through discreet vigilance, appropriate intervention, and constructive support.
The Dangers of Feeling
Like a Fake
by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries
Many skilled, accomplished
executives fear that theyre not
good enough—impostors who
are bound to be found out. By
undervaluing their talent, are
they ruining their careers and
Reprint R0509F
The Dangers of Feeling
Like a Fake
by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries
harvard business review • september 2005 page 1
Many skilled, accomplished executives fear that theyre not good
enough—impostors who are bound to be found out. By undervaluing
their talent, are they ruining their careers and companies?
A few years ago, a middle manager in a tele-
communications company came to see me
upon his promotion to a senior management
role. I’ll call him Tobin Holmes (all case study
names in this article have been disguised). A
young Englishman who had studied classics at
Oxford before graduating in the top 5% of his
class at Insead, Holmes was very clever. But he
feared he couldn’t take on the new job’s re-
sponsibilities. At the root of Holmes’s di-
lemma was his suspicion that he was just not
good enough, and he lived in dread that he
would be exposed at any moment.
Yet, at the same time, he seemed bent on
betraying the very inadequacy he was so anx-
ious to conceal. In his personal life, for exam-
ple, he indulged in conspicuously self-destruc-
tive behavior, such as public affairs with
numerous women and a drinking spree that re-
sulted in a disastrous car accident. At work, he
found it increasingly difficult to concentrate
and make decisions. He worried—and now for
good reason—that his problems at the office
would be noticed by the CEO and other mem-
bers of the board. When would they realize
that they had made a horrible mistake in pro-
moting him to the senior executive team?
When the fear and stress overwhelmed him,
Holmes quit his job and accepted a junior posi-
tion at a larger organization. Given his genuine
talent, however, it didn’t take long before he
was asked to head up one of that company’s
major country units, a role widely known to be
a stepping-stone to the top. In this new role,
Holmes’s feelings of doubt resurfaced. Rather
than risk being exposed as incompetent, he left
the job within a year and moved on to yet an-
other company. There, despite his perfor-
mance, top management looked at his employ-
ment record and concluded that Holmes just
didn’t have the right stuff to make it to the
highest levels of leadership.
Holmes couldn’t let himself move up to the
most senior levels in an organization because,
deep inside, he feared that he was an impostor
who would eventually be discovered. In many
walks of life—and business is no exception—
there are high achievers who believe that they
The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake
harvard business review • september 2005 page 2
Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries
) is
the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chaired
Professor of Leadership Development
at Insead in France and Singapore and
the director of Insead’s Global Leader-
ship Centre. He is also a practicing
psychoanalyst who has authored or
edited more than 20 books on the
psychology of leaders and organiza-
tions, including
Life and Death in the
Executive Fast Lane
1995) and
The Leadership Mystique
(Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2001).
are complete fakes. To the outside observer,
these individuals appear to be remarkably ac-
complished; often they are extremely success-
ful leaders. Despite their staggering achieve-
ments, however, these people subjectively
sense that they are frauds. This
neurotic impos-
as psychologists call it, is not a false humil-
ity. It is the flip side of giftedness and causes
many talented, hardworking, and capable lead-
ers—men and women who have achieved
great things—to believe that they don’t de-
serve their success.
To some extent, of course, we are
tors. We play roles on the stage of life, present-
ing a public self that differs from the private
self we share with intimates and morphing
both selves as circumstances demand. Display-
ing a facade is part and parcel of the human
condition. Indeed, one reason the feeling of
being an impostor is so widespread is that soci-
ety places enormous pressure on people to sti-
fle their real selves.
But neurotic impostors feel more fraudu-
lent and alone than other people do. Because
they view themselves as charlatans, their suc-
cess is worse than meaningless: It is a burden.
In their heart of hearts, these self-doubters be-
lieve that others are much smarter and more
capable than they are, so any praise impostors
earn makes no sense to them. “Bluffing” their
way through life (as they see it), they are
haunted by the constant fear of exposure. With
every success, they think, “I was lucky this
time, fooling everyone, but will my luck hold?
When will people discover that I’m not up to
the job?”
Neurotic impostors can be found at all lev-
els of an organization. Typically, the misgivings
begin with the first job, right after graduation,
when people are fraught with anxiety and par-
ticularly insecure about their ability to prove
themselves. Promotion from middle manage-
ment to senior management is another tricky
time because an executive must negotiate the
difficult switch from being a specialist to be-
coming a general manager. But neurotic im-
postors face their greatest challenges when
they are promoted from senior management
to CEO. In my work with senior managers and
CEOs, I’ve found that many neurotic impostors
function well as long as they aren’t in the num-
ber one position. Often, a leader’s feelings of
self-doubt and anxiety are less pressing when
he is lower on the totem pole, because senior
executives usually provide support and men-
toring. But once a leader becomes the CEO, ev-
erything he does is highly visible. He is ex-
pected to stand on his own.
For this reason, people like Tobin Holmes
abound in business. In my career as a manage-
ment professor, consultant, leadership coach,
and psychoanalyst, I have explored the topic
of neurotic imposture with individuals and
with large groups of senior executives. My ex-
perience has shown that feelings of neurotic
imposture proliferate in today’s organiza-
tions, and I encounter this type of dysfunc-
tional perception and behavior all the time—
particularly when working with executives in
consulting firms and in investment banking.
In the following pages, I will describe the phe-
nomenon of neurotic imposture; explore how
perfectionist overachievers can damage their
careers by allowing their anxiety to trigger
self-handicapping behavior; and discuss how
such an executive’s dysfunctional behavior can
have a ripple effect throughout a company,
hurting not just the morale of colleagues but
also the bottom line.
Why You Might Feel like a Fake
The term
impostor phenomenon
was coined in
1978 by Georgia State University psychology
professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Su-
zanne Imes in a study of high-achieving
women. These psychologists discovered that
many of their female clients seemed unable to
internalize and accept their achievements. In-
stead, in spite of consistent objective data to
the contrary, they attributed their successes to
serendipity, luck, contacts, timing, persever-
ance, charm, or even the ability to appear
more capable than they felt themselves to be.
(See the sidebar “Women and the Impostor
Numerous doctoral theses and research pa-
pers have followed that original study. Al-
though their findings have not always been
consistent, most studies suggest that neurotic
imposture is by no means limited to women.
Men can also exhibit it—though, interestingly,
genuine imposture (that is, deliberate fraud) is
more common in men than in women (see the
sidebar “Genuine Fakes”). Further, the inci-
dence of neurotic imposture seems to vary by
profession. For example, it is highly prevalent
in academia and medicine, both disciplines in
which the appearance of intelligence is vital to
The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake
harvard business review • september 2005 page 3
Not surprisingly, my clinical interviews with
CEOs and other high-level executives suggest
that specific family structures can be breeding
grounds for feelings of imposture. Certain dys-
functional families—particularly those in
which parents are overinvested in achieve-
ment and where human warmth is lacking—
tend to produce children who are prone to
neurotic imposture. Individuals who have
been raised in this kind of environment seem
to believe that their parents will notice them
only when they excel. As time goes on, these
people often turn into insecure overachievers.
Paradoxically, a predisposition to neurotic
imposture is also quite common in individuals
who are
expected to succeed. In socially dis-
advantaged groups (often with a blue-collar
background, for example), parents may with-
hold encouragement because their children’s
ambitions are inconsistent with family expecta-
tions. Children who manage to advance to posi-
tions of real power as adults, however, often
transcend their families of origin in such a spec-
tacular way that a lingering insecurity remains
about having become so “grandiose” in their
success. Frequently, because of conflicting sig-
nals, these executives wonder just how long that
success will last. This fear of surpassing one’s
parents can cause feelings of neurotic imposture
to persist long after the parents have died.
Birth order also influences the development
of neurotic imposture. Feelings of imposture
are more common among firstborn children,
reflecting the new parents’ nervous inexperi-
ence and greater expectations of these chil-
dren. For example, older children are often ex-
pected to help out in the care of brothers and
sisters and are held up to younger siblings as
models of maturity.
How Your Fear Becomes Reality
How does neurotic imposture get out of hand?
The trigger is often perfectionism. In its mild
form, of course, perfectionism provides the en-
ergy that leads to great accomplishments. “Be-
nign perfectionists, who do not suffer feelings
of inadequacy, derive pleasure from their
achievements and don’t obsess over failures.
Neurotic impostors, however, are seldom be-
nign in their perfectionism. They are “abso-
lute perfectionists, who set excessively high,
unrealistic goals and then experience self-de-
feating thoughts and behaviors when they
can’t reach those goals. They are driven by the
belief that they are currently not good
enough, but that they could do better if only
they worked harder. For this reason, perfec-
tionism often turns neurotic impostors into
workaholics. Fearing discovery of their “fraud-
ulence, they burden themselves with too
much work to compensate for their lack of
self-esteem and identity. Work/life balance is a
meaningless concept to them.
I’m reminded of a cartoon that depicts a
CEO handing over a dossier to one of his subor-
dinates. He says, “Take your time. I’m not in a
hurry. Take the whole weekend if necessary.
Neurotic impostors commonly enter into abu-
sive, self-defeating collusions of this sort. They
don’t realize that they may be pushing them-
selves and others too hard, often to the detri-
ment of long-term success. By exploiting them-
selves so brutally in this way, they risk rapid
and early burnout.
The vicious cycle begins when the impostor
Women and the Impostor Phenomenon
Women who reach successful positions
that conflict with their family of origin’s
way of thinking about gender roles are
especially prone to feeling fraudulent.
The gender socialization that women
are often exposed to—for instance,
being told that they should become
nurses or secretaries when choosing a
career—tends to augment their sense of
imposture when their achievements rise
above those expectations. Ironically, this
feeling might, at an unconscious level,
carry benefits: A woman might be able
to deal with ambivalence about her real
career achievements by keeping them
out of conscious awareness.
Inner confusion develops into genu-
ine neurotic imposture for many
women when they reach critical junc-
tures in their lives concerning marriage,
work, and children. These decisions are
especially difficult for women who have
had traditional mothers. Consciously or
not, women tend to compare their cho-
sen roles with the roles their mothers
played. The fact that working women
choose not to stay at home but rather to
pursue a career—a lifestyle so different
from what they witnessed as children—
often makes them feel like bad mothers
to their own children and bad wives to
their husbands.
Gender role socialization isn’t the
only thing that makes women more vul-
nerable than men to neurotic impos-
ture. The fact that businesswomen have
to function in an environment domi-
nated by men compounds their insecu-
rity, because when women are success-
ful, they’re not the only ones who
suspect imposture. Many of their com-
petitive male colleagues likewise as-
sume that chance or an affirmative ac-
tion program—not talent or skill—was
responsible for the success. Though few
men will express such an opinion pub-
licly, subtle insinuations from male col-
leagues add to a woman’s fear that the
“luck” won’t last. As a result, many very
gifted women don’t know that they have
superior talents. Moreover, if they
alize it, they are more likely than men to
hide those talents and to play dumb as a
strategy for dealing with others’ envy
and their own recurring feelings of self-
The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake
harvard business review • september 2005 page 4
sets impossible goals. She fails to reach these
goals, of course (because
no one
could reach
them), then tortures herself endlessly about
the failure, which incites further self-flagella-
tion, accentuates the feelings of imposture,
and inspires her to designate yet another unat-
tainable set of goals—and the entire cycle of
workaholism and fraudulence begins again.
That’s what happened to Robert Pierce, an ex-
traordinarily gifted trader at a highly presti-
gious investment bank, who set ever increasing
goals of financial compensation for himself to
deal with his anxieties about being a fake. Ini-
tially, Pierce felt elated whenever he reached
his goal; but he became more desperate every
time he learned that someone else earned
more than he did. This kicked off an orgy of
self-blame that did little to improve his career
or his organizational effectiveness.
When Fakes Court Failure
Because they are so ambivalent about their
achievements, neurotic impostors often appear
to be engagingly humble. Self-deprecation, of
course, is a perfectly respectable character trait
and, from a career management point of view,
can be seen as a protective strategy. Underplay-
ing one’s achievements defuses other people’s
envy and directs attention away from success,
thereby lowering others’ expectations—a use-
ful maneuver in case of future failure. A display
of self-deprecation also seems to convey a sense
of modesty, which can elicit encouragement
and support from others.
But the neurotic impostor’s humility actu-
ally stems from another kind of protective im-
pulse: the need for an exit strategy. Failure (at
least at a subliminal level) becomes a desirable
way out. Think of the journalist who wins a
Pulitzer prize at a relatively young age. Such a
“gift can turn out to be a poisonous boon.
When such good fortune occurs, what can one
do for an encore? Great achievements have ru-
ined many a neurotic impostor because they
can lead to paralysis. Indeed, to neurotic im-
postors, granting wishes for success can be one
of fate’s cruelest jokes.
For many neurotic impostors, the heart of
the problem is the fear that success and fame
will hurt them in some way—that family,
Genuine Fakes
In contrast to neurotic impostors, true impos-
tors are con artists—and they tend to be
men. Consider Ferdinand Waldo Demara, for
example. In the fall of 1951, this real impos-
tor’s career came to an abrupt halt after a
woman became alarmed by an article she
saw in her daily newspaper. The article de-
scribed a successful emergency operation
performed by Joseph Cyr, a surgeon, on the
deck of a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer dur-
ing the Korean War. Worried, the woman
contacted her son, also a physician named Jo-
seph Cyr, who assured her that he was safe
and sound and practicing medicine in New
Brunswick. Unsettled by the odd coincidence
of names, however, Dr. Cyr then contacted
the police, an initiative that led to the unrav-
eling of Demaras bizarre career.
It didn’t take long for the authorities to
find out that Demara was masquerading as
Dr. Cyr. In fact, the bogus doctor’s medical
“training” had been limited to a few weeks
working as an unskilled hospital orderly in
the United States. That experience, however,
along with the help of the ship’s medical at-
tendant and the navy’s generous supply of
anesthetics and antibiotics, was enough for
him to successfully play the role of medical
doctor. Fortunately, despite Demara’s lack of
qualifications, his patients survived their
Further investigation revealed that De-
mara had gone through most of his life mas-
querading as other people. His career as an
impostor spanned three decades and in-
cluded a wide variety of pseudo-identities,
such as deputy sheriff, prison warden, psy-
chologist, university lecturer, Trappist monk,
and cancer researcher. This chameleon-like
career didn’t come without a price, however.
At one point, Demara’s impersonation re-
sulted in a term of imprisonment.
Apparently, his inability to figure out what
to do with his life motivated him to masquer-
ade as other people, with the professed hope
of eventually “finding” himself. Personal gain
wasn’t a major part of the equation. Interest-
ingly enough, his talent at playing different
roles was remarkable, and many of his unsus-
pecting employers were quite satisfied with
his work. He was a master of improvisation,
gathering from textbooks and observation
the necessary knowledge to fill each role he
took on.
Demara’s exploits fascinated the public.
After his discharge from the Canadian navy,
he sold his story to
magazine and be-
came the subject of a book by Robert Crich-
ton, which led to the making of the film
Great Impostor,
starring Tony Curtis. Crichton
reported that he’d had a hard time pinning
down the impostor’s motives for engaging in
all his masquerades. At one point, Demara is
said to have told him, “I’m a rotten man,
adding that he was prompted by “rascality,
sheer rascality. But Demara also suggested
that his activities served a good cause. Ac-
cording to him, his various impostures were
instrumental in making organizations more
vigilant about confidential records, thereby
helping to better secure people’s privacy.
The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake
harvard business review • september 2005 page 5
friends, and others will continue to like them
much better if they remain “small. After all,
people who covet success are likely to envy
those who have achieved it. As Ambrose Bierce
wrote in
The Devil’s Dictionary,
success is “the
one unpardonable sin against one’s fellows.
In extreme cases, neurotic impostors bring
about the very failure that they fear. This self-
destructive behavior can take many forms, in-
cluding procrastination, abrasiveness, and the
inability to delegate. As Tobin Holmes’s experi-
ence illustrates, it can also take such extreme
forms as inappropriate womanizing or sub-
stance abuse on the job.
Neurotic impostors are also quite creative
at destroying their own successful careers. It’s
as if they
to be discovered. Perhaps assist-
ing in their own unmasking is a proactive way
of coping with their anxiety; maybe it offers a
sense of relief.
Mike Larson, a senior executive I worked
with a few years ago, exemplifies this propen-
sity. After a brilliant career as a medical re-
searcher, Larson was offered the position of di-
rector of research in a global company
specializing in over-the-counter drugs. When
he embarked on this challenging new research
agenda, however, Larson’s incessant fear of ex-
posure harmed rather than enhanced his per-
formance. It was one thing to be a member of
a team, but taking on the number one research
position was another question altogether. To
be so visible made him feel increasingly anx-
ious, contributing to his drive to do even bet-
ter; but his inability to delegate and his ten-
dency toward micromanagement led to a
greater sense of malaise.
Larson realized that he was digging a hole
for himself, but it was difficult for him to ask
for help. He was afraid that doing so would
give his colleagues proof of what they surely
suspected—that he was an impostor, a fraud.
To avoid being found out, he withdrew into
himself, agonized over what his colleagues
thought about him, worried about not living
up to their expectations, and waffled over
every decision. The result was anxiety-filled
days, sleepless nights, and an intense fear of
making mistakes—a fear that made him un-
willing to experiment, develop, and learn.
Like most neurotic impostors, Larson en-
gaged in faulty reality testing. This distortion
in his cognition caused him to dramatize all
setbacks—he blew small incidents out of pro-
portion and cast himself as the helpless victim.
Larson lived with the misconception that he
was the only one prone to failure and self-
doubt, and this made him feel even more inse-
cure and isolated. Like other neurotic impos-
tors, he focused on the negative and failed to
give himself credit for his accomplishments.
He also harmed his career by becoming a mas-
ter of catastrophizing—reaching exaggerated
conclusions based on limited evidence.
Only when Larson was awarded the top re-
search position did he realize how much he
missed the mentors he’d had at earlier stages
of his career. Those mentors had helped him to
deal with the pressures of his job and to main-
tain equilibrium under stress. But when he was
promoted, he found it much harder to ask for
advice and to find people who would challenge
his faulty cognition. As a result, he executed a
number of poor management decisions that
contributed to his organization’s ineffective-
ness. Eventually, he was asked to step down
from the director’s position.
The Neurotic Organization
Neurotic impostors can, and do, damage the
organizations they try so hard to please. Their
work ethic can be contagious, but because
they are so eager to succeed, they often be-
come impatient and abrasive. Neurotic impos-
tors are extremely tough on themselves and
thus not predisposed to spare others. They
drive their employees too hard and create a
gulag-like atmosphere in their organizations,
which inevitably translates into high em-
ployee turnover rates, absenteeism, and other
complications that can affect the bottom line.
Moreover, neurotic impostors can intimidate
others with their intensity. And because they
don’t have what it takes to be effective leader-
ship coaches, they are not generally talented
in leadership development and succession
More dangerous, however, is neurotic im-
postures effect on the quality of decision mak-
ing. Executives who feel like impostors are
afraid to trust their own judgment. Their fear-
ful, overly cautious kind of leadership can eas-
ily spread across the company and bring about
dire consequences for the organization. For in-
stance, a neurotic impostor CEO is very likely
to suppress his company’s entrepreneurial ca-
pabilities. After all, if he doesn’t trust his own
instincts, why should he trust anyone else’s?
Neurotic impostors are
quite creative at
destroying their own
successful careers.
It’s as if they want
to be discovered.
The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake
harvard business review • september 2005 page 6
Neurotic impostor CEOs are also highly
likely to become addicted to consulting compa-
nies because reassurances provided by “impar-
tial” outsiders compensate for the executives’
feelings of insecurity. Of course, judicious use
of consulting advice does have its place; but
neurotic impostor executives all too easily turn
into puppets whose strings are completely ma-
nipulated by those same advisers. Ralph Gor-
don, the CEO of a global engineering firm, suf-
fered just such an experience. In a group
session during one of my seminars, he ex-
plained that he really didn’t choose engineer-
ing—his father had chosen it for him. Gordon
conceded to his father’s wishes and entered the
business world, where he never felt comfort-
able in his corporate role. When he reached
more senior positions, Gordon began to rely
on consultants, some of whom took advantage
of his insecurity at a very high price. Not only
did they charge Gordon’s firm substantial fees
for their services, but their predatory behavior
increased Gordon’s feelings of dependency.
This type of behavior is exacerbated when
neurotic impostors work in an organization
that punishes failure. If the company culture
does not tolerate mistakes, the leader’s level
of anxiety will increase, making neurotic be-
havior all the more likely. This is paralyzing
for the perfectionist whose fear of failure
will have an even more negative impact on
the organization.
Consider Lynn Orwell, who had a successful
career at a consulting firm before accepting an
offer from a prominent media company. In her
consulting job, Orwell had functioned excep-
tionally well. But this changed when she ac-
cepted an assignment to run the new firm’s Eu-
ropean operation.
Although Orwell was an outstanding
source of good ideas, her fear of failure led
her to manage in ways that seemed counter-
cultural. In an organization that had always
been decentralized, for example, she decided
to centralize many of the functions in her
part of the business. But what really grated on
many people was that Orwell wanted to make
most of the decisions herself. Her perfection-
ist attitude and her need for immediate re-
sults made delegation anathema to her and
dampened the team’s productivity and cre-
ativity. Orwell’s coworkers started to worry
about the abrasiveness that had crept into her
manner, and her prickliness about criticism—
whether real or perceived—began to irritate a
growing number of her colleagues. She re-
acted with defensiveness and hostility to com-
ments about any of her proposals, reports, or
decisions. Furthermore, anxious not to be
found wanting, she took ages to prepare for
meetings, trying to anticipate every conceiv-
able question that could be asked. Such pre-
cautions extended her already lengthy work-
week into weekends, and she expected others
to show the same commitment.
Orwell’s sense of neurotic imposture deeply
affected the organization. As time went on,
many of Orwell’s team members began to ask
for transfers to other parts of the organization.
Others quietly sought out headhunters. Those
who stayed took a passive-aggressive attitude
toward Orwell. Since they felt it was not worth
the effort to reason with her, they let her make
all the decisions but undermined them in sub-
tle ways. As a result, her European division—
once hailed as the flagship operation—was in-
creasingly seen as a liability. By the year’s end,
profitability for Orwell’s division had fallen
into a deep slump, confirming the company’s
belief that she was truly incompetent. Ulti-
mately, the division was sold to a competitor.
Orwell’s neurosis had ruined not only her ca-
reer but a perfectly robust business as well.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Neurotic imposture is not an inevitable part
of the human condition, and it is avoidable.
Early prevention, for instance, can com-
pletely ward it off. If caregivers identify and
deal with factors that lead to this phenome-
non very early in life, the dysfunctional ef-
fects will never surface. Parental awareness
of the downside of setting excessively high
standards for children goes a long way to-
ward preventing later misery. But there is
hope for late-diagnosed impostors as well. Ex-
perience has shown that psychotherapeutic
interventions can be very effective in chang-
ing distorted self-perceptions.
Yet the best—and often most appropriate—
way for you to manage feelings of imposture
can be to evaluate yourself. After all, you are
the best person to assess the source of these
problems. And though a leadership coach or
psychotherapist can certainly help you on this
journey of self-discovery and change, a mentor
or good friend can also put things in perspec-
tive. Realizing that you may repeat with your
The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake
harvard business review • september 2005 page 7
children the same pattern of behavior you
learned from your parents, for instance, can be
a great motivator.
If you are unable to take the initiative to
deal with your feelings of imposture, however,
your boss needs to intervene. Such was the
case with John Stodard, the CEO of a large tele-
communications company, who came to talk
to me upon the recommendation of his chair-
man. In our sessions, Stodard wondered if he
needed pointers on how to be a more effective
executive. A 360-degree feedback exercise
showed that he was inclined toward micro-
management and perfectionism and that he
possessed poor listening skills. Some of the
written comments also noted that his impa-
tience put intense pressure on his directors and
that morale at the office was quite low. As we
discussed the problem together, Stodard began
to realize the extent to which he had internal-
ized the expectations of his extremely demand-
ing parents, and he started to change. He
began to experiment with new behavior in the
office and received a surprisingly positive re-
ception, which increased his sense of self-effi-
cacy. When I met him a year later, Stodard
mentioned quite proudly how morale at the of-
fice had dramatically improved, how the com-
pany had become more profitable, and how his
ability to let go of his controlling tendencies
had contributed to these successes.
Like Stodard’s chairman, good bosses re-
main alert for symptoms of neurotic imposture
in their employees: fear of failure, fear of suc-
cess, perfectionism, procrastination, and wor-
kaholism. In performance reviews, bosses
should signal (uncritically) any danger signs to
their direct reports. They should also explain
how anxiety about performance can take on a
self-destructive quality, and they should em-
phasize the value of work/life balance, point-
ing out that extreme strength can easily be-
come a weakness.
Above all, bosses need to make sure that a
subordinate suffering from neurotic impos-
ture understands that with responsibility
comes constructive criticism. This means
teaching—by word and by example—that
open, honest, critical feedback is an opportu-
nity for new learning and not an irredeem-
able catastrophe. They must point out that
in a responsible job occasionally feels
unequal to the task and needs time to adjust
and learn the ropes. The worst thing a neu-
rotic impostor can do, especially in a new po-
sition, is to compare his abilities with those of
seasoned executives. This is guaranteed to be
an exercise in self-flagellation.
At the same time, leaders must strengthen
the perceived link between positive achieve-
ments and efforts. They can do this not only by
offering praise when it’s due, but also by ac-
knowledging that making mistakes (though
not repeating them!) is part of a successful cor-
porate culture. The wise organization does not
punish “smart” mistakes; indeed, to “fail for-
ward” should be part of an organization’s im-
plicit cultural values. Mistakes can offer great
opportunities for learning and personal
growth, and leaders need to help neurotic im-
postors understand that a fear of failure is nor-
mal and need not be debilitating.
When it’s the CEO himself who feels like a
neurotic impostor, the situation is more com-
plicated. A leader at the top does not find it
easy to ask for support from mentors or from
subordinates who feel their boss “has it all. For
this reason, many high-performance organiza-
tions now have leadership-coaching programs
to help their executives cope better with the vi-
cissitudes of working life. When leadership
coaches recognize the signs of neurotic impos-
ture, they are in a good position to give con-
structive advice. In the 15 years that I have
been running top-level seminars at Insead, I
have listened to executives discuss significant
experiences in their work and personal lives.
Being willing to talk about these neurotic im-
posture problems and accept peer support not
only has a profound effect on leaders but also
has a deep impact on the organization that the
neurotic impostor has helped to shape.
• • •
It’s often said that a person’s strengths are
also his weaknesses. The same is true for an or-
ganization. In most well-run organizations, se-
nior managers remove low performers or de-
velop them to become high performers. But
these same managers are less effective in man-
aging people who appear to be problem-free.
By their very nature, neurotic impostors are
very hard to detect because the early stages of
an executive’s career are so conducive to high
performance. It is, in fact, a rare leader who
does not suffer from neurotic imposture. All
the more reason, therefore, for managers to be
on the lookout for it in themselves, their re-
ports, and their potential successors. Failing to
Good bosses remain
alert for symptoms of
neurotic imposture in
their employees: fear of
ailure, fear of success,
rocrastination, and
The Dangers of Feeling Like a Fake
harvard business review • september 2005 page 8
recognize and deal with neurotic impostors
has serious consequences both for individual
sufferers and for the organizations relying on
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Gender stigma consciousness (GSC) is one of the relevant aspects of an individual’s experiences, especially for women. The current study was an attempt to investigate whether gender stigma consciousness signifcantly impacts the imposter phenomenon (IP) (a self-perception of intellectual fraudulence despite having objective and consistent career accomplishments) and self-silencing (SS) (suppression of genuine emotions and opinions in intimate partner relationships). Moreover, this study investigated whether the imposter phenomenon mediates the relationship between gender stigma consciousness and self-silencing. To address these research objectives, this survey-based quantitative study was conducted on a sample of 237 female software engineers in India. The data have been analyzed by using structural equation modeling, where a mediational model that connects gender stigma consciousness, imposter phenomenon, and self-silencing was tested. The fndings revealed that gender stigma consciousness signifcantly predicts the imposter phenomenon and self-silencing. Further, the imposter phenomenon mediates the relationship between gender stigma consciousness and self-silencing.
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