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Combining prosperous work lives and balanced personal lives
Spring 2007

My goal is to bring you news, insights, and information about leading a balanced and prosperous life.

In this issue, you'll find:

  1. The Imposter Phenomenon
  2. BossWoman coaching
  3. Up and coming workshops

1. The Imposter Phenomenon

By anybody’s standards Julia Cameron is a prolific writer. She has authored over 21 books including her trilogy on creativity, The Artist’s Way published in 1992 followed by Walking on Water and Finding Water. She is also the creator of nine plays including 4 musicals in which she wrote the songs, four poetry collections, and a screenplay for a major movie. However, she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night thinking, “I can’t write. I’ve never been able to write. I’ve fooled the world and they’re finding out at dawn.”

Do you ever feel like you are faking your way through your creative or professional life fearful of being discovered as the imposter you are? Well, you are in good company according to Dr. Tracey T. Manning, associate professor, Center on Aging, and senior scholar, Burns Academy of Leadership, at the University of Maryland College Park. “This pattern, most frequent among high-achieving women, is called the ‘imposter phenomenon,’ and is an organized pattern of beliefs in one’s own phoniness with significant personal and professional consequences. The Imposter Phenomenon, first described and named in 1978 by social psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, surfaces most often when previously competent people face a new challenge.”

Susan Robison: Is this imposter phenomenon found only in women?

Tracey Manning: No. Though most research has explored the imposter phenomenon in women, e.g. high-achieving women or female students in traditionally male fields, it appears that some men also suffer from the syndrome. Here is the good news for both genders: Only professionals and leaders in challenging situations worry about the imposter phenomenon. Line workers in factories do not share that concern. So if this topic resonates with your readers, they should know that it is common for high-achieving women and men have doubts about their abilities.

S.R.: What causes high-powered women with a track record of accomplishments to doubt their ability?

T.M: There are at least two reasons women are more likely to struggle with imposter phenomenon than men are. First, in most societies, leadership is seen as more “natural” for men than for women. While this attitude may be changing, our ideas about leaders and leadership originate from much earlier in life, so we develop implicit leadership theories that influence our beliefs about our own leadership. A second reason is that women are more likely than men to attribute the results of our behavior to causes that limit our confidence and maximize our self-doubt.

S.R.: How do implicit leadership theories affect women?

T.M.: Think of an implicit leadership theory as a set of assumptions about where leadership originates and how leaders look, behave and develop. Implicit leadership theories are most like stereotypes about leadership, which we apply to ourselves as well as to others.

When women hold leadership positions, others often conclude that they were promoted or chosen to fill a quota, for political correctness, or as tokens. Unfortunately this leads to women being regarded as, and perhaps feeling, less competent than male peers. Being treated like a token has implications for women’s self-concepts; in several key studies of top executives, women who are equally talented as men have less confidence in their abilities.

S.R.: So you mean that some of the implicit ideas we have about leadership and achievement lead to our seeing our success as incongruous with our femaleness and lead to our worry that we are faking our achievements and will be discovered any minute?

T.M.: Yes. For example, some women don’t see themselves as leaders no matter how many leadership roles they take; they’d probably tell you they were “just doing what was needed.” That’s because they’ve defined leadership in a way that disqualifies them.

S.R.: If a woman holds a leadership position and is accomplishing its tasks, why does it matter if she doesn’t see herself as a leader?

T.M.: Because without leadership self-confidence (called leadership self-efficacy) she is much more stressed in the role, less likely to take initiative or risks, and less likely to buffer her team or organization from stress.

Other Causes of the Imposter Phenomenon

S.R.: You mentioned that attribution patterns contribute to feeling like a fake? What are attribution patterns?

T. M.: Attributions are your explanations for why some event happened. Certain patterns of viewing the relationship between cause and effect are major contributors to the imposter phenomenon. For instance, ask a woman how she credits her most recent success or disappointment. If he answers that her success was mostly due to hard work and/or low challenge, and her disappointing result was due to her own inadequacy, that’s likely to induce imposter feelings.

S.R: How so?

T.M.: Because those choices represent whether she sees herself as causing the result and whether the cause is something temporary or something stable. The most confidence-building attribution pattern is to make stable, internal attributions for successful results (e.g. “I saw what needed to be done and had the guts to do it” or “I brought the right people together and worked with them to reach this goal”) and temporary, external attributions for disappointing outcomes (e.g. “I really hadn’t taken time to prepare adequately” or “I underestimated what was involved in accomplishing this”).

S.R.: So women who take appropriate credit for their success are less likely to worry about being imposters?

T.M.: That’s right. And women who see their so-called failures as temporary and due to external causes are also in good shape. Reverse these helpful patterns and you blame yourself for not accomplishing something when the odds were stacked against you. You might, for example, attribute receiving your MBA to good luck or to an easy program. Seeing your accomplishments as flukes and your disappointing results as personal failures contributes to feeling worried that soon you will be found out for the fake you have been all along.

S.R.: So what about times where you really did blow it? It seems like you’re suggesting we rationalize those away?

T.M.: Not really. If we’re going to take blame for failures and not credit for successes, we’ve stacked the deck against ourselves. Because of this excessive humility (due to our socialization, probably), we miss the opportunity to gain the confidence in our abilities that comes from more accurately attributing responsibility.

S.R.: What about attributing your success to hard work? That’s something many of us can relate to. Like staying up to the wee hours of the morning working on a proposal?

T.M.: Although hard work is important in leadership and professional professions, there is a trap in believing that effort is the most important contributor to success. There’s an inverse relationship between ability and effort, so that working very hard may be an indicator that your do not have the ability you need for that job. Strange as it may seem, studies on promotability show that people are much more likely to be promoted if their achievements seem to have come from ability than from hard work. The key here is to work from strength, finding a job that matches your abilities and then applying yourself by working smart.

Effects of the Imposter Phenomenon

S.R.: So far I get that believing you’re an imposter increases your stress, reduces your initiative, and hurts your chances of promotion. Anything else?

T.M.: Sadly, yes. Women who believe they are imposters are often embarrassed about their own (perceived) incompetence and anxiously avoid situations in which they might be negatively evaluated by others. Because they lack confidence in their abilities, they hesitate to accept leadership challenges for which they’re obviously qualified and are more reluctant to take on innovative or challenging projects. They are also less likely to benefit from leadership training. And finally, they work harder than needed. And, of course, organizations lose when people aren’t using their potential.


S.R.: Can you give my readers any tips for fighting or minimizing the imposter phenomenon?

T.M.: Sure, here are some.

  1. Challenge your self-defeating thinking patterns. People can change their attribution patterns, as well as their attention to and belief in others’ positive feedback.

      Accept that your accomplishments must in some way reflect your abilities and give hope that you’ll be successful in new areas of endeavors. How likely is it that every accomplishment has been luck or a fluke? It’s far more likely that you have minimized your contribution to each success.

    • Glean behavioral feedback from compliments and other positive feedback on your work. Sometimes these are so general and global that they aren’t very credible. When you receive such feedback, thank the person and then ask for more specific feedback on what you did that helped.

    • Challenge any non-constructive beliefs that are part of your implicit leadership theory, especially associations of leadership with masculinity. Expand your definition of leadership and look for leadership potential in non-typical places.

  2. Identify and strengthen your strengths - and those of others! Focus on those tasks which match your strengths, while identifying and delegating where possible to those with complementary strengths.

    • Research from the Gallup organization has identified significant increases in productivity and satisfaction when individuals identify and match their work to their strengths.

    • Even more impressive, if you work at strengthening your strengths you will find effort-reward ratios far greater than those you get from trying to strengthen yourself in your weakness areas.

  3. As you change your attribution patterns and recognize your strengths, also increase your leadership self-confidence.

    • Those higher in leadership self-efficacy are more motivated to exercise leadership, more likely to be perceived as leaders or as change agents, and set more challenging goals for themselves and their groups.

    • High leadership self-efficacy helps leaders weather the storms of leadership, including those which invoke stereotypes/negative evaluation of women leaders, and helps to buffer your group from outside stresses while increasing its performance.

Dr. Manning conducts leadership workshops and consults on a wide range of leadership issues including developing transformational leadership in nonprofit organizations, leadership development for women in non-traditional fields, training leadership trainers, and volunteer and non-positional leadership development. She and I will both be presenting workshops on June 1 to faculty women in science and engineering at a national conference sponsored by UMBC and the National Science Foundation.


Examine and challenge your imposter feelings. You deserve your success.

Susan Robison


Clance, P. R. (1985). The imposter phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishing.

Langford, J. & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30, 495-501.

Manning, T. (2002). Gender, managerial level, transformational leadership and work satisfaction. Women in Management Review, 17, 207-216.

2. BossWoman coaching

About the publisher: Susan Robison, Ph.D. is a professional coach, speaker, author and seminar leader. She loves to coach women who want improvement in:

  • work-life balance,
  • career transitions,
  • building your business or practice,
  • time management,
  • increasing productivity.

If you are feeling stuck on the way to your ideal life, give Susan a call for a complementary half-hour coaching session.

She provides keynotes and seminars to business and organizations on the topics of:

  • leadership strategies for women,
  • relationships,
  • work-life balance,
  • change.

She offers her audiences a follow-up coaching session because she knows that workshops don’t work.

Contact Susan for your coaching, speaking, or seminar needs at Susan@BossWoman.org or at 410-465-5892.

3. Up and coming workshops

I am currently accepting speaking invitations for work/life balance workshops for the winter of 2008. Contact me if your group needs a speaker on any of the topics listed above.

Title: “No Snooze Buttons Allowed: Active Learning Strategies for the Classroom, Lab, and Clinic”
Date: May 18, 2007; 8:30am-12
Place: Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing; Baltimore, MD

Title: “MAP Your Career” by Dr. Susan Robison and “Bringing Out the Best in Others: Leadership Skills for Women in Science” by Dr. Tracey Manning
Date: June 1, 2007; 8:30am - 5
Place: Women in Science Leadership Conference; University of Maryland Baltimore County

Title: “Living Well While Doing Good”
Date: June 26, 2007; 1-5
Place: PANPHA state conference; Hershey, PA


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BossWoman e-Newsletter is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Coaching should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, legal, or financial services.

© Copyright 2006 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. However, you may not copy it to a web site without the publisher’s permission.

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