You can manage your “impostor syndrome”

When they say: “You’re great!”

But you think: “Not so much!”

A client I’ll call “Jack” retired from his job as marketing VP with a high performing company.  After growing bored, he agreed to join the leadership of a large but struggling non-profit.  Once he had time to look around and assess the situation, Jack began to introduce changes that quickly revitalized the organization.  The board members was thrilled with what Jack was doing. When Jack took steps he regarded as basic, they called him a genius.  When he offered new suggestions, they rushed to agree.

At first Jack was pleased with his positive reception, but he became increasingly uncomfortable with the robust flow of praise.  On one hand, he feared the group would inevitably be disappointed in his ability, once he ran out of obvious ways to create improvements.  On the other, he began to doubt his colleagues’ judgment, thinking that “they must be awfully naïve if they think I’m that great.”

Fortunately Jack is self-aware, so he took steps to assure that his discomfort with effusive compliments would neither impact his attitude nor undercut his performance.  But a surprising number of high achievers find it difficult to respond well to praise for their work 

Have you ever been in a situation where you make suggestions or take steps that seem obvious, but the people around you act like you’ve just invented the next killer App?

One explanation for the gap between your achievement and their reaction may be that you have finally reached a level of considerable expertise.   It’s like when you’re watching athletes who have been honing their skills for years.  Their everyday performance seems amazing to you. And if you have worked hard to become an expert in your field, your routine work may have the power to astound your colleagues.

But if you feel unease when you’re given praise for your work, you may be suffering from a bit of the “imposter phenomenon.”  Social psychologists say that it is not uncommon for high achievers to experience secret discomfort when their work is praised. 

If you feel like an imposter, you might believe that so far you have been lucky, and that your success is the result more of external factors than your own work.  Or perhaps you suspect that you are somehow creating a fake impression of competence, and that you’re not nearly as skillful as you appear.  Or maybe you always want to discount your achievement, feeling a constant need to explain that your success is really not a big deal.

Another explanation is simply that you have never learned to take a compliment.  Perhaps you grew up in a family where people didn’t gracefully say “thank you” in response to praise. And now your knee-jerk response to positive commentary is to minimize your worthiness.

Finally, when praise for your work makes you squirm, perhaps it is because you know that you really were not doing your best.  And maybe you think that your employer’s standards are just too low.

Regardless of the reasons that praise on the job makes you uncomfortable, 4 techniques will make it much easier to take:

  • Set specific goals.  If you define precise goals, and your bosses agree to them, ultimately everybody will know whether or not you are successful.  If you write down measurable goals, create an action plan for achieving them, and then follow the plan, your success will be hard to miss.  You will find praise easier to accept when it clearly reflects the facts of what happened.
  • Ask for details.  Sometimes positive sounding feedback doesn’t actually feel good because it seems vague and over-blown.  If you feel like you could have done much better, but they say “terrific job,” it is hard to know what is really going on.  If you have a good relationship with your boss, ask for a more specific critique of various aspects of your accomplishments.
  • Calm your self-talk.  Maybe the problem isn’t so much their nice words as the way you comment upon those words inside your head.  If your habitual response to praise is to tell yourself “you should do much better” it’s no wonder you don’t enjoy it.  Notice your internal response to positive feedback, and replace negative refrains with phrases like, “it feels good when they recognize my hard work.” 
  • Learn to accept compliments.  When somebody comments on your good work, say “thank you.”  Praise is a gift, and it is rude and unkind to rebuff the giver with phrases that reject their compliments.  Cultivate a sense of gratitude for their effort, and express that gratitude with genuine words of appreciation for their tribute.  If you feel a need to even things up, find a way to compliment them in return.
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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

Posted in personal growth, self talk, Uncategorized, workplace issues Tagged with: , ,

Beverly E. Jones

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Links to occasional colleagues

ECCA - Website
ThreeJoy - Website
Kerry Hannon - Website
Ohio University's Voinovich School - Website
Senior Entrepreneurship Works - Website
Congressional Management Foundation - Website
WOUB - Website
ShadowComm LLC - Website

Books with Bev’s Tips

Bev’s tips on career change are featured in the books and other writing of leading journalist Kerry Hannon. If you’re thinking about a career transition, try:

What’s Next? Find Your Passion and Your Dream Job in You Forties, Fifties and Beyond


“Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy and Pays the Bills”


Bev at Ohio University,
where she is a visiting
executive with the
Voinovich School of
Leadership & Public Affairs



Bev's garden at Buckeye Farm