If you feel like a fake it doesn’t mean you really are

Does "imposter syndrome", where qualified and competent people feel like fakes, effect the Emiratisation process, asks Justin Thomas.

Leonardo DiCaprio famously faked it as an airline pilot in Catch Me If You Can. (Courtesy Dreamworks)
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There’s a relatively new phrase going around: fake it until you make it. I hope this ugly expression dies out long before it becomes an old saying because it is a rallying call to pretenders everywhere, and implies that nine-tenths of success is simply a brazen exhibition of ill-founded self-confidence.

Imagine if medics or airline pilots began operating on this maxim. And what about those talented individuals who have actually made it, but feel as though they are somehow faking it?

Imagine having a job where you constantly fear being found out as a fraud. A job where you suspect, that one-day, your colleagues will discover you lack the requisite knowledge or skills for the position you hold. This psychological state has a name; it’s called the imposter syndrome or imposterism.

Just to be clear, an imposter is actually a talented, high-performing individual with a long list of hard won credentials. The problem arises when, for some reason, this talented individual feels like a fraud, and is unable to attribute personal achievements to internal qualities such as intelligence or ability. In other words, imposters fail to internalise their success.

Those who experience imposterism typically believe that others have an inflated view of them. This feeling-like-a-fraud state is perpetuated by a tendency to belittle one’s achievements. So, the imposter lives with the misplaced fear that they will be exposed as the fake they believe themselves to be.

This idea grew out of 1970s research on high achieving pioneers such as the first female CEO at corporation X and the first female medical director at hospital Y. Tthe research suggested that many of them were plagued by the type of self-doubt that would come to be labelled imposter syndrome.

One of the negative consequences of this self-doubt is a tendency to self-sabotage, that is, behave in ways that hamper one’s own progress. Examples might include, quitting, procrastinating and unnecessarily making powerful enemies.

Another negative consequence is the tendency to overwork to prove one’s worth. However, over-industriousness may result in another promotion – to a position the individual feels even less worthy of – and so the cycle continues.

From the company’s perspective, at face value at least, this overworking might seem like a best-case scenario. However, such a pace is seldom sustainable. The worst-case scenario in such a situation is that potential star-performers start self-sabotaging or forsaking opportunities out of a misplaced sense that they were faking it anyway.

So who is most likely to feel a fake? First generation professionals are particularly vulnerable to feelings of imposterism. As well as people who are the first – in a country, a community or suchlike – to achieve some particular distinction or enter a particular field. This may be especially true for Emiratis. As a consequence of this country’s rapid development, they might often find themselves being the first Emirati this, or the first Emirati that.

Might imposterism be affecting Emiratisation? Is it a barrier to Emiratis pursuing private sector careers? These are key questions given the strategic importance of workforce nationalisation in the UAE.

To truly address such issues however, there is a need for many more well-trained occupational psychologists. Leading UAE companies, such as Etihad Airways, already routinely employ occupational psychologists. They play a key role in ensuring employee well-being, as well as helping to identify, nurture and retain talented individuals. Occupational psychologists have a role to play in protecting good workers from those who would fake it until they, perhaps one day, make it. And those who wrongly doubt themselves.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas