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April 6, 2017
“I FEEL LIKE A FRAUD!”- Combating Feelings of Inadequacy in the Workplace

Years ago, a colleague walked into my office at work and said, “Do you ever feel like a fraud?”  I laughed.  “Every single day.”

It’s not that I have no business playing my role; I’ve been at this for quite some time now with a proven track record.  However, there is not always definitive right or wrong answers in my field.  Unlike being a doctor, for example, no one lives or dies based on my choices.  In short, I make a lot of stuff up as I go along using carefully combined measures of data and experience. And then I ultimately let my intuition take over.

Fraud is an extreme term, and chosen to make a point.  I’m going to suggest many of us, regardless of how well-educated or experienced we might be, suffer from feeling like we are an imposter in our roles at some point.  Sometimes, this is minor. Maybe you get incredibly nervous before speaking to a client because you feel you don’t know their business, or yours, well enough.  Maybe it’s more significant. Perhaps you manage a team and you question your ability to successfully lead them to accomplish your goals.

While many a study has been conducted illustrating how women have suffered from feelings of inadequacy, men appear to be equally conflicted.   

Ok, so a large population of people question themselves. What does one do to overcome this? 

1. GO BACK IN TIME

Start at the beginning.  Determine when the feeling started, and the times at which it appears to surface.  By doing so, perhaps you end up reflecting on an early adolescent memory, or a tough early work experience. Maybe it had to do with the way you presented a report in front of your high school class, or the outcome of a project you led. With a little self-diagnosis, you just might be able to identify exactly where these negative feelings of self-doubt came from. If so, move to step 2.

2. COMPARE AND CONTRAST

You’ve done some detective work to determine where some of these feelings originated. Now, compare and contrast them to what you are experiencing in the present day.  If speaking up in front of your class was filled you with dread, it’s no wonder you might feel slightly panicky at the thought of presenting in front of your whole team today. Think hard though. Surely, you’ve had to speak up in front of people since those scary high school days. Reflect on other experiences, and consider the outcomes. Chances are, you made it through, and even though you might have been nervous, you powered through to a satisfactory outcome.  Maybe it even went well. 

3. I AM AMAZING, AND PEOPLE LIKE ME.

Years ago, on Saturday Night Live, a character named Stuart Smalley would stare into his mirror listing affirmations to pump himself up. While entertaining, it’s not far off.  Taking an inventory of your accomplishments leading to your current job is a great confidence builder.  Education, classes, internships, business connections. It all counts, and it all led up to the job you have now.  Recognize and embrace all the hard work you did to get there. 

4 . IDENTIFY WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE

Starting to feel a little more confident? Good. Now think about your role. Consider what success looks like. Perhaps ask your boss and colleagues for their opinions too; sometimes those versions differ from your own, and it’s far better to be aligned. Once you’ve created a solid model of what success looks like, you can focus your energies working towards that. People often share the “I feel like a fraud” when they focus on self-doubt, or believe they need to have all the answers.  Reality check:  NO ONE has all the answers. It’s how you approach the problems, find answers, and learn from mistakes that matters. 

While we might intellectually understand that no one is perfect, the insecurity that makes us feel like a fraud can sneak up on the best of us. We all want to bring our best selves to work, and feel respected and supported. There is not one successful person alive that hasn’t stumbled along the way, and wondered if they were living up to expectations. Take a deep breath. Thriving in your job or field is a significantly different focus than “being perfect” in it. Want to thrive? Go back in time, determine where the doubt started, and then celebrate what’s got you to where you are now. Work hard to edit those behaviors that are getting in your way, and celebrate your victories. 

Perfection shouldn’t be the goal. Adding impact and getting incrementally better each day should.  Chance that perspective, and watch those feelings of self-doubt slip away.  


Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.