Beware: The Imposter Phenomenon Is Back
by Lucille Maddalena


It’s back.  The Imposter Phenomenon has proven it never left us and is still slithering in the background in spite of the tremendous strides forward women have made in business.

What is the Imposter Phenomenon?  One very successful female corporate executive recently described an hidden  barrier to her own success:

"The main barrier I had to face before successfully achieving the position I am in today has been my personal inner voice that kept warning me I would soon “be found out”, that I was “playing” professional and that the someone would soon call my bluff. The barrier has definitely been more emotional than factual, inside my head.”

Too often professional women become isolated, unable to move past their own inner doubts.

This false sense of inferiority was first described as the “Imposter Phenomenon” in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes.  Thirty years have past.  What causes women in 2008 America to exhibit the same false sense of inadequacy that plagued women in an era when Goldy Hawn was painted with graffiti dancing to disco on the TV show , “Laugh-in”? We are incredibly fortunate compared to our counterparts in other countries; we still have a long way to go. And much of what is holding us back continues to be our own self-perception.  Maybe we are our own worse enemy.

A few months ago  I conducted an experiential workshop for professionals in the Human Resources field titled “Seeking Euphasia”.  Euphasia is the island famed theorist Abraham Maslow imagined to be inhabited by 1,000 ‘self-actualized’ people.  As we went through the steps to reveal our personal self-concepts, even this group of highly trained professionals with a deep understanding human nature and personal growth, found themselves struggling with the concepts.  The gentle probing and open discussion explored sensitive confidences calling up emotional responses. The ensuing sharing formed a unique bond among those in attendance:  I continue to receive comments on progress initiated as an outcome of this group experience.

We’re not all Human Resource professionals, so what resources are available to you to avoid this barrier to personal success? The first step is introspection.  Challenge yourself and seek to recognize if you hold any secret misperceptions of your value and standing. Take a few minutes to answer these questions to get a quick read of your self-concept:

  1. Do you find that you are not experiencing an internal sense of success --despite earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities?

  2. Do you secretly feel you are not intelligent and believe that you are fooling others?

  3. Do you feel others may have over-evaluated your abilities, skill and talent?

  4. Do you find yourself acting anxious, lacking self-confidence, or have feelings of depression and frustration over a perceived inability to meet self-imposed standards of performance?

  5. Do you often attribute an unexpected performance outcome to a temporary cause or an expected performance outcome to a stable cause?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all or a majority of these questions, you may have uncovered the “Imposter Phenomenon” in yourself.   You are not alone.

In their studies,  Clance and Imes, stated that success for women in business was simply not expected and that lack of expectations was internalized by women; as result they felt they were “fooling other people”:

Thus, unlike men, who tend to own success as attributable to a quality inherent in themselves, women are more likely either to project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability.”

Today, women are in positions of power at small businesses and global corporations.  We maintain political offices of importance and influence the development of our society.  This is evidence that norms are changing, but not fast enough for us all. If you find yourself still under the influence of this misperception, now is the time to take action.

The lady who recognized her personal barrier to success was fortunate to find a woman within her company able to serve as mentor and coach:

A female mentor, reporting to several skilled female managers and reading about female leadership has helped me understand the underlying reason or this reluctance to accept my own skills, allowing me to succeed in my profession.”

The best thing you can do for yourself is to develop your own support network.  The process of having others to talk to and work through difficult issues is truly part of our feminine heritage.  Find the women you trust and allow yourself to expose any concerns. Seek out women who have achieved their goals, who have a broader view of the world and who have experiences you need to share.  Once an issue becomes public, it loses its power.

Many businesses today are offering in-house mentoring programs. Investigate the management development programs offered by your firm and make every effort to participate in an apprentice or development program.  Working with an internal coach or mentor at your company does have its limitations: you must be very cautious about confidential issues and image. 

The most successful business leaders today obtained their own coach Executive Coach or are fortunate to work in an organization where Executive Coaches are provided  through their employers.  Firms that are on the cutting-edge of talent management are rewarding success by providing Executive Coaches to employees showing potential leadership abilities.  If your company has a program to connect you with an Executive Coach, be certain to apply for the opportunity.

Now is the time to take action that will help you achieve your dreams.


The Author

Lucille Maddalena Lucille Maddalena, Ed.D. is an Executive Coach and Management Consultant providing management skill training, team building, meeting facilitation, conflict resolution processes, and group coaching programs. More than 6,000 managers have successfully completed her popular TRANSITIONS TO MANAGEMENT seminars. Her new workshop, TRAIL SETTING & STORY TELLING, guides participants to achieve life and career goals while clearly defining their own legacy through story telling. See Dr. Maddalena's recently published articles on her website or blogs: .
Many more articles in Personal Development in The CEO Refresher Archives

Copyright 2008 by Lucille Maddalena. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading