Imposter syndrome, sometimes called cheating syndrome, is a psychological disorder in which successful people are unable to recognize their accomplishments.
People with this syndrome feel that they are not up to circumstances or that they do not deserve what they have achieved as a result of their work. But the impressive thing about this story is that its hero manages to turn her weakness into an advantage.
When entrepreneur Sarah Willingham was in her twenties, she was in a position of high responsibility. She was given a challenge to get the best buys of a famous British restaurant chain.
The commercial responsibility was huge and depended largely on his negotiating skills to get the best deals and close contracts worth thousands of dollars.
One day, I was two minutes late for an important meeting to discuss the terms of the new contract.
The businesswoman said: “One of the lawyers, who was sitting at the other end of the table, raised his face to me and said: ‘Thank God, I want coffee with a little milk and a spoonful of sugar,’ who immediately understood that he had mistaken her for an office assistant.
How did the businessman react? I walked around and did the lawyer and asked the other negotiators if anyone else wanted coffee. As no one else wanted it, she served herself and sat down on the other side of the table, directly in front of the lawyer who had confused her.
When Willingham realized what had happened, he said it was transparent. At that moment, the lawyer understood the assumption that made him make a mistake.
“It was a beautiful moment in my career, and really empowering me, because I realized that imposter syndrome became, at that moment, my superpower,” she points out.
He asked, a smile on his face: “And guess who came out of that meeting with a good deal?”
This is the experience the businesswoman had when she faced the prejudices that for years made her feel unworthy of the place in which she found herself. But when she confronts her fears head on, she realizes she can handle them and even change circumstances in her favour.
For many who suffer from imposter syndrome in the world of work and often feel that their professional accomplishments are not deserved and that they are likely to be defrauded at any moment, everything is very challenging.
The syndrome can hinder the pursuit of success. If you are afraid that someone will expose your “bluff,” your stress level will be so high that you may end up hurting your performance because of the fear of failure.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. There is the other side of the coin.
According to the scientific findings of Basima Tawfik, a researcher in work and organization studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States, the behaviors of “fraudsters” who try to compensate for their self-doubt can generate good professionals.
People with impostor syndrome may outperform their “non-impostor” peers by making room for feelings of inadequacy rather than fighting them.
This means that a characteristic that many people dislike about themselves can actually motivate them to perform better, according to the results of experiments conducted by Tawfik.
“All of this makes me very emotional,” she says. “It could be an advantage and maybe we should start thinking about taking advantage of it.”
Benefits of feeling like a “con”
Tawfik’s research indicates that tangible benefits can arise from deceptive ideas in the workplace.
One of the main points that defines impostor syndrome, the researcher explains, is the difference between how people perceive your competence and how competent you really are.
Therefore, the syndrome is more related to cognition than to performance. In this sense, the difference in perceived professional ability may not hurt the quality of their work after all.
And if self-doubt leads someone to try harder in their personal relationships, it can also help them outpace their peers in developing their social skills.
It’s okay to doubt yourself
The academic’s conclusions are innovative, says organizational psychologist Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, since, historically, impostor syndrome was seen as something exclusively negative.
“His research breaks new ground by highlighting that deceptive thoughts can be a source of energy,” he says. “They can motivate us to work harder to prove something to ourselves and smarter to fill in the gaps in our knowledge and capabilities.”
While there are a number of recommendations to help practitioners try to overcome imposter syndrome, experts believe the goal should really be to revise the notion that imposter syndrome is harmful altogether.
It is true that some people totally think they are scammers. But for most of us, the syndrome manifests as a shared doubt about our ability to meet the challenges we face, according to Grant.
He adds that while it can cause stress, fear, or low self-esteem, the syndrome also reveals normal and even healthy doubts.
“Instead of crippling us, they can strengthen us,” the specialist concludes.
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