In a journal entry dated 1938, and later published for the world to see, novelist John Steinbeck made a stunning confession. 

“I’m not a writer,” the man who would go on to receive the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature penned. “I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be alright. I’ll try to go on with work now.”

The work Steinbeck ‘went on with’ was the soon-to-be-published The Grapes of Wrath, the Pulitzer Prize winner regarded amongst the greatest novels of all time. A fair achievement for a non-writer – especially one who had already written Of Mice and Men and Tortilla Flat.  

Steinbeck’s is one of the more commonly-cited historical examples of imposter syndrome, a thought process introduced to the world of psychology by doctors Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, whereby successful people are plagued by the belief they are not as bright or as capable as everyone believes them to be. Those with imposter syndrome live in fear that they will one day be ‘found out’ for what they really are. 

It’s far from an isolated phenomenon – in modern times, famous faces such as three-time Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep, former World Health Organisation Director-General Margaret Chan, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Atlassian Founder Mike Cannon-Brookes have spoken publicly of their imposter feelings.

But the affliction goes further than those in the public eye, according to imposter syndrome expert and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women Valerie Young. 

“The statistic you might have seen thrown around a lot is that 70 per cent of high achievers have these feelings at one time or another, which makes us the majority,” Dr Young told Leader. “It’s a very normal thing.”

Imposter syndrome’s potential to impact the workplace is significant, and Dr Young said the coping mechanisms people used had the potential to cost organisations and individuals plenty. 

These include flying under the radar, procrastination, self-sabotage and overworking – all of which succeed for the individual short term but prove costly long term. 

“They do the job, they manage anxiety and they help people avoid being found out, but it’s at a cost,” Dr Young said. 

“If you’ve got bright people who aren’t asking questions or offering ideas, or people are  sitting there not understanding but not willing to ask questions, then you’ve got a drain in your talent pool.”

Perhaps the surprising commonality of imposter syndrome is evidenced by the huge turnout at the third AIM WA Your Best Self Series lunch, where international speaker, peak performance consultant, coach and AIM WA Associate Fellow Shona Rowan AFAIM delivered an interactive and insightful presentation entitled People Pleasing, Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome. 

Ms Rowan outlined the factors which might bring about imposter syndrome in an individual, and gave the audience practical strategies for overcoming or coping with imposter feelings.  

Having coached thousands of clients to boost their professional success over the past 15 years, Ms Rowan said things such as upbringing, education, organisational culture, socioeconomic status and unfamiliar work environments could all trigger imposter feelings and impact our self-confidence. 

Much of the fix, according to Ms Rowan, came down to identifying and then changing unhelpful thoughts or mindsets; dropping perfectionism, accepting complements, avoiding unfavourable comparisons with others, sharing doubts and accepting credit for your achievements. 

“Our thoughts impact our feelings, our behaviours and our results,” she said.

“We must ensure our mindset is helping us, not hindering us from achieving our goals.” 

What all people with impostor feelings share in common are unrealistic, unsustainable expectations of competence. Based on her research and experiences, Dr Young has identified five “competence types” into which those with imposter syndrome might fit.

Perfectionist: The perfectionist expects to achieve perfection with ease. 
“Managers need to value the fact this person puts a premium on their work, but help them find ways to let go of the idea they can do everything perfectly all the time,” Dr Young said. 

Expert: The expert is more concerned with the amount of knowledge they hold than the quality of their work. No amount of reading is ever enough. 

“The good news about the expert is they care deeply about knowledge and learning, which is why it bothers them so much if they don’t know how to do something,” Dr Young said. 

“Reinforce that but help them let go of the idea they can know everything – that’s the equivalent of trying to get to the end of the internet.”

Natural genius: The natural genius believes if they were really capable or competent, succeeding in a given task wouldn’t require effort or hard work. 

“We can appreciate their love of mastery but help them understand that some things are going to come harder to people than others,” Dr Young said. 

Soloist: The soloist believes achievements only count if achieved on their own and is unlikely to ask for help. 

“These people work really well independently, but sometimes you’re the last to know if there’s a problem because they spend all this time trying to figure it out themselves, rather than picking up the phone,” Dr Young said. 

Superman or superwoman: Rather than a single-minded focus on their career, this person measures competence based on also excelling as a parent, spouse or community volunteer.

“You have to help these people realise they’re not going to be able to perform up to par all the time in all their different roles,” Dr Young said.

Jack McGinn is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.