Ask a coach: How can I deal with imposter syndrome after a promotion?

Coaching
Xiao Ling
Dec 13, 2022

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Xiao Ling
Xiao Ling is a behavioural health coach and counsellor on Intellect. She was trained in Taiwan and the US, and has helped clients from diverse ethnicities and cultures with anxiety, depression, relationships, and work-related stress. She has extensive experience in helping professionals across the globe navigate their careers and make values-oriented decisions to lead authentic lives.

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Ask A Coach is a column where Intellect’s ICF-credentialed coaches, licensed counsellors, and clinical psychologists address the hard questions. In this installment, Xiao Ling draws from her experience with a client and offers practical tips for others in the same boat.

For many, a promotion calls for a celebration. But for some, being awarded a new, shiny title comes with a great deal of self-doubt. Left unmanaged, imposter syndrome can shake the joy out of a well-deserved achievement. How does one get out of their own way and truly embrace this transition?

My client, Emma (not her real name), is a 30-year-old woman who was recently promoted to a directorial position after spending the last 5 years in her previous role. After the initial excitement wore off, Emma came to me, distressed. “It’s weird,” she told me. “I had been wanting this role for so long, but now that I finally got it, I feel anxious and distressed.”

But even though Emma labelled her feelings of anxiety “weird”, it came as no surprise to me. It is not uncommon to experience stress and self-doubt after getting promoted, and many clients of mine have reported “feeling like a fraud” despite having extensive work experience and exceptional performance to boot. In other words, they have imposter syndrome—a phenomenon where an individual questions their ability to perform despite the lack of supporting evidence.

Working with Emma, we sought to understand the reasons for her imposter syndrome. Below are five causes which I am sure resonate with many.

Common causes of imposter syndrome

  • Perfectionistic beliefs: “I can’t make mistakes, or people will see me as a total failure.” ”They will regret promoting me instead of another candidate.” ”I was great in my old role, but the work is different now.”
  • Change in power dynamics: ”My former team members now report to me. Will they see me as a leader?” ”I’m on the same level as my former higher-ups now. Will they see me as a peer?” ”Will my opinions be respected?”
  • Adjustment to newfound authority: ”I have to bite my tongue in meetings even when I have constructive feedback, lest people think I’ve become bossy after the promotion.”
  • Big shoes to fill: ”The last person in this role had far more experience and seniority.” ”He was such a great leader. I don’t know how I can ever replace him.” ”People will compare and find me lacking.”
  • Insecurity about age: “I’m a young lady who just turned 30. How will I manage team members who are up to 20 years older than me?” ”The former director is much more senior in age. Will people take me seriously?”

The price of imposter syndrome

Stumped professional growth

Imposter syndrome affected Emma tremendously. Even though she understood that this transition comes with a steep learning curve, the latter was impeded by her feelings of anxiety. “I can’t bring myself to ask questions. I don’t want to look stupid,” she admitted. Her fears not only slowed her down and reinforced feelings of incompetence, but also led her to isolate from her peers and support system.

Fearing failure and negative perception, Emma also turned down challenges. The delusion that one must be 100% ready before committing deprived her of a great many learning opportunities Emma’s fear of failure along with. “I was offered this great opportunity to lead a huge project, but I passed it to another director because I wasn’t 100% confident if I could do it well,” she said.

Ineffective leadership

“I feel like I’m failing this role, and I’m failing my team,” said Emma as she teared up in our session. In a way, she was not entirely wrong. Imposter syndrome does not only affect her as an individual, but also team members looking to her for direction. For starters, team members forgo learning opportunities whenever Emma withholds constructive feedback for fear of appearing “bossy” and “authoritative”.

Of course, Emma is not alone in her dilemma. New leaders often feel the need to please others, especially if it is the first time they’re assuming authority. Since it is easier to be a good buddy than a great leader, it can be tempting to adopt a casual and over-friendly approach to management. However, when they do so, team members suffer from a lack of guidance, which in turn impede their growth and output.

How to manage imposter syndrome

It is no exaggeration to consider imposter syndrome an insidious way of self-sabotage. But as destructive as it is, there are ways to manage intrusive thoughts of being a “fraud”. Below are some strategies we came up with for Emma:

Regular reflection

Some say, don’t look back or you’ll hurt your neck. But looking back on our past can help an individual understand, identify, and evaluate their progress. Imposter syndrome boils down to limiting and outdated narratives about ourselves. They trap us in the past without acknowledging how far we’ve come. Regular reflection helps us take stock of our growth, and is essential to sculpting one’s self-perception as their career evolves.

Try:

  • Updating the “skills and experience” section on your resume regularly
  • Keeping track of small wins at work
  • Writing down positive feedback from peers and leaders

Embrace being “perfectly imperfect”

Rather than seeing themselves as a “completed project”, newly promoted managers are better off accepting that they are a “work in progress”. Since there is no end to learning, the “100% readiness” is a beautiful but dangerous delusion that sows the seed of self-doubt. Once Emma let go of it, she grew comfortable with asking for feedback and support. In fact, she even requested for an executive coach from her company.

Try:

  • Identifying a support system within your new role
  • Proactively seeking learning and development opportunities
  • Exploring executive coaching and relevant resources

Identify unhelpful thinking patterns

Since our thoughts affect how we feel about and react to situations, it is important to recognise unhelpful thinking patterns that fuel negative self-talk. Emma, for example, fell into the “all or nothing” thinking pattern; believing that she has to get it right or not attempt at all, lest one slip-up makes her a total fraud.

Try:

  • Journaling to track unhelpful thoughts
  • Identifying common thinking patterns (e.g. over-generalisation, personalisation)

Separate your identity from actions or events

Have you ever caught yourself making statements like “I’m such a failure”? If so, you may have conflated an action or event (failing a project) with your identity (a failure). It is critical to distinguish between what we do and who we are. Instead of writing ourselves off, we can simply acknowledge the fact that we are bound to falter at times. Those moments, however, do not have to define who we are.

Try:

  • Use more “verbs” instead of “adjectives” in your self-talk (e.g. “I do” instead of “I am”)

Getting out of your own way

An update on Emma: She has been in the director role for four months now, and is still learning a great deal every day. In fact, she has even received positive feedback from the higher-ups. Despite making mistakes along the way, she is no longer doubtful about getting promoted.

There’s a saying that goes, “if your goals don’t scare you, they’re not big enough”. Sometimes, the fear of falling short could very well be a sign of a worthwhile endeavor—so long as it doesn’t become debilitating. If Emma’s experience sounds familiar to you, journeying with a coach can help.

Learn more about how coaching works here.

About Author

Xiao Ling
Xiao Ling is a behavioural health coach and counsellor on Intellect. She was trained in Taiwan and the US, and has helped clients from diverse ethnicities and cultures with anxiety, depression, relationships, and work-related stress. She has extensive experience in helping professionals across the globe navigate their careers and make values-oriented decisions to lead authentic lives.

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