The “I’m a Total Fraud” Syndrome


One of my clients is a brilliant executive on the fast track.  He recently told me he feels like he’s been faking it for as long as he can remember, and it’s only a matter of time until he’s found out; he’s constantly engaging from the perspective of “don’t fuck up”.  His continual promotions don’t reflect the way he feels – not even a little bit.

Another client says she’s been “lucky, not good” in her career.  Yet, this same executive says she works harder and longer than everyone to stay ahead of the competition.  These are contradictory notions, for sure.

So, what exactly is going on here?

There’s so much pressure in traditional corporate America jobs.

Sure, there is the reasonable gravity of productivity, goals, and deadlines.  That’s why you get paid as well as you do. Part of that compensation is for managing that stress the best way you can.

However, in many companies today, there is this political minefield that asks us to conform to a murky code of how to fit in, and often the culture is steeped in a fear-based ideology.

Does any of this ring a bell for you?

  • No mistakes.
  • You must act as if you know everything.
  • You must always speak up and sound smart in meetings.
  • You must come from a position of strength, and constantly be posturing.
  • You must not contradict those in positions of power.
  • You must stay on message.

This kind of unhealthy political environment perpetuates what I call the “I’m a total fraud” story (and kills creativity btw, but that’s another blog!).

We’ve all got it to some degree.

The “I’m a total fraud” story goes like this:  you’ve been faking it every step of the way, and have somehow magically fooled everyone around you. And it’s only a matter of time until the jig is up, and someone outs you.

So you have to work harder, know more, speak more eloquently using biz buzzy industry terms, and for god sakes, you should never be disruptive or challenging of status quo, and never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.

Exposure equals shame and embarrassment and judgment. Or worse: being found out that you aren’t perfect.

When I was in my 20s, I worked with a Harvard Biz school graduate who was the chief of staff to the head of a major media company.  That is a big job, with 24/7 pressure.  He literally couldn’t turn his phone off, even after he went to bed.  But he was so polished and so calm under fire.  He never appeared frazzled to me.  One night we had dinner together, and I got up the courage to tell him that I sometimes felt like a total fraud in my job.  He, too, admitted he had experienced the “fraud” story.

I was floored. Even him!  He’d appeared so unflappable.

Especially early in our careers, when we don’t have that much experience or knowledge under our belts.  That’s okay.  But if you are finding that you have more anxiety as you have more success, it’s worth considering:

It might not be you.

It might be the culture.

You may not be able to control the culture, but you can control you.  How you choose to position yourself (authentically is ideal!), and how you respond to that political pressure.

If you’ve been feeling this “I’m a fraud story”, I’d invite you to consider it from another perspective.

Think for a minute about the kinds of colleagues you’ve enjoyed working with?  Is it the bombastic “know it all’s?  is it the seemingly invulnerable ones, always speaking assuredly?  Is it the ones who use those big buzzy words all the time, but somehow say nothing at all? Is it the company men?

Or is it the ones who’ve taken chances, who’ve asked questions, who’ve owned mistakes, who’ve allowed some vulnerability?

Sure, passion and decisiveness are attractive, but not at the expense of curiosity and openness, and a willingness to be wrong (and more importantly: the ability to own being wrong!)

Be the kind of colleague you’d like to work with.

And give yourself a bit of a break.

Here’s a truth to keep in mind when there’s lots of competing voices in a meeting and lots of pressure to perform…

You know some things. Other people know other things.  Every interaction is an opportunity to learn from one another and grow as a team.

Besides… “Know it all’s” are boring.



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