Uncertainty about your own ability can undo all the good work you've done.

Doubting your own ability can undo all the good work you've done. Photo: Tamara Voninski

Do you go to work every day secretly waiting for someone to rumble you for the fraud that you feel like?

Even though you're well qualified and good at your job, you're convinced deep down that the promotion you just got handed was due to luck, affirmative action or a mistake in the HR department.

Welcome to Imposter Syndrome – that nagging feeling your success is unearned, you don't really know what you're doing and sooner or later the genuinely competent folk are going to find out and call you on it.

Warrick Arblaster: work with an external mentor.

Warrick Arblaster: work with an external mentor.

First described by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the condition was initially associated with high-achieving women who struggled to internalise their successes and accomplishments.

It's a psychological phenomenon that rears its head for many people at different moments as they rise through the ranks. If unchecked, the persistent self-doubt can be crippling, personally and professionally.

Speaker and consultant Suzanne Mercier says it put the kybosh on her rise in the advertising world, two decades ago.

Karen James: had to quash her inner doubts.

Karen James: had to quash her inner doubts.

The first woman to be promoted to the board of George Patterson Advertising in 1990, just two years after joining the company, Mercier says she headed up to the executive suite expecting to be fired rather than promoted.

“I was totally gobsmacked, I didn't feel it was earned, I didn't feel I had the skills or the capability,” she says.

The appointment saw her promoted two levels above her existing position, leapfrogging a number of longer-serving colleagues in the process.

After privately deciding her elevation was the result of an affirmative action gesture, Mercier says she struggled in the role, afraid to ask for help and crippled by the thought of being found out and kicked out.

“I might have come across as a confident businesswoman – that wasn't what was going on in my head,” Mercier says.

“If you don't recognise your skills and capabilities, you can't own your successes … we dismiss our talents and successes as anything but the fact that we've done something well.”

After two years of hiding her doubts from friends and colleagues – “there was no mentoring in those days” – she left to start her own agency, convinced she didn't have what it took to play in the premier league. “My take-out was that I wasn't good enough,” she says.

Edwin Trevor-Roberts, the CEO of career management consultancy Trevor-Roberts Associates, says Imposter Syndrome often strikes when people step up to their first executive role.

'Are you sure they picked the right person?' is a common thought, he says. Few are keen to vocalise it, in particular men who are programmed to feel they must appear the master of every situation.

Some avoid the problem by holding back from applying for higher roles for fear of drawing further attention to themselves and their shortcomings, Psychology Melbourne counselling psychologist Warrick Arblaster says.

It's a similar dilemma to that faced by game show contestants – take the money and run, or play on and potentially lose everything, he says.

“People think, 'I've got this far as a fraud, I'll just tread water now',” Arblaster says.

Working with an external mentor or executive coach can ensure self-doubt doesn't hamper the corporate climb, as can making a list of personal accomplishments.

“It can be useful to see your achievements in writing, versus going, 'God, I was lucky, will I be found out'?” Arblaster says.

“It's a continuum. You probably can't get rid of it, but you can stay on top of it.”

The Commonwealth Bank's general manager of affiliate business banking and its Women in Focus program, American-born Karen James, has worked in executive roles in Australia and abroad and is in demand nationally as a speaker.

As a graduate electrical engineer, she held her own in the male-dominated world of information technology in the 1980s and 90s.

Career achievements notwithstanding, she's loathe to describe herself as a high flier and has had to work to quash her inner doubts as she has risen through the ranks.

Before speaking engagements, she sometimes still asks herself, 'why would this group want to hear from me?'.

“There are two conversations – the one that's happening externally and the one that's going on in your head,” James says.

“Your childhood and how you're raised makes a difference – your experience, education and exposure culminates in your 'self talk'. 'I'm just a girl from New Jersey' – I had to get rid of that.”

James believes cultivating a circle of supportive colleagues and friends early in your career is the best way to ensure self doubt doesn't run rampant.

“You have to work on it at a personal level – surround yourself with the right people,” she says.

“Having the full support of a good mentor, people around you who truly believe in you, strong positive influences, can help cull the self talk.”