How Do You Hire an 'Impostor'?

SUMMING UP Do "impostors" make good employees? James Heskett's readers provide different takes on workers who feel they've succeeded by mistake. What do YOU think?
by James Heskett

In Hiring, Should We Give Self-Confidence a Greater Weight Than Humility?

Summing Up

A respondent to this month’s column, Joel, provided the question for this summary. As he asked, "should we be focusing on hiring people who exude more confidence than their achievements justify?”

In advocating the employment of “imposters,” a term, by the way, that was regarded as objectionable by many, most respondents implicitly rejected the notion. They pointed to the desirable qualities of imposters, people who believe that their achievements are attained in spite of their limited capabilities, as employees. And several identified personally with the phenomenon.

Desirable qualities of imposters were described in different ways. Julie Cohen said, “The balance of competency and occasional self-doubt keep them constantly striving to improve.” Shyamsunder Panchavati, in opting for hiring imposters, commented that, “I would any day prefer self moderation to empty haughtiness.” Nilgun Yetis described them as “very talented and wholehearted people.” GuestReader put it this way: “Lack of certainty in one’s ability to succeed is reasonable at the outset of a new or unknown task.”

Deepa S suggested that, “‘imposters’ could well bring in the balancing element in the teams of today where more people are the exact opposite in terms of work output to ‘talk’ ratio!” Cathy Lee speculated about whether imposters “are more loyal.” A comment by jhsmd probably echoed the unexpressed feelings of some other respondents: “… because I felt that I didn’t deserve all that … I worked especially hard to make it up to my patients… it plagued me until the day I retired.”

Comments about how to hire and work with imposters were interesting as well. Jackie Le Fevre commented: “If the ‘imposter’ … (is) driven by a sense that (he/she) … could have been/done/made more than they did … that sounds like a solid hire to me provided their manager is perceptive enough to avoid (him/her) burning out. If the ‘imposter’ however literally can’t ‘see’ how they got the results that they did and regard it as a total fluke then that’s more risky.” She also recommended using a technique called values profiling in hiring imposters.

Shyamsunder Panchavati would look for a person moderate about his achievements "(but whose) work records are however not so modest...” Once hired, MrByTheBook would ensure that “he or she has the right coaching in order to help to achieve a high self esteem...”

Having inspired the question in the title, Joel then seemed to answer it by saying, “I think the answer lies in the demands of the role you hoped they’d fill. As a general rule, however, genuine humility doesn’t usually appear on the short list of potential character flaws.”She also recommended using a technique called values profiling in hiring imposters.

In hiring, should we give self-confidence a greater weight than humility? What do you think?

Original Article

Have you ever felt that you didn’t deserve admission to a prestigious school, an award, or even a particular job that you’ve always prized? Students in my Harvard Business School MBA classes often expressed the notion that they were “admissions mistakes.” In my case, I had doubts about whether I should have been admitted to the Stanford MBA program. I filled out the application in pencil to please an Army buddy when we were stationed in Europe, and my grade record at a little college in Iowa didn’t warrant admission anyway. Then I got his seat in the Stanford class.

I’ve learned that this is called the “impostor phenomenon.” Researcher Pauline Rose Clance defines it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness.” HBS professor Amy Cuddy in her new book, Presence, sums up the research on one aspect of the impostor phenomenon by pointing out that those who experience it most are “People who have achieved something; people who are demonstrably anything but frauds.”

So maybe it would be worthwhile to have at least a few impostors in our organization, although we probably wouldn’t want just any impostors. The trait is a double-edged sword.

Research shows that some people who experience imposterism allow it to build to such an extent that the fear of failure takes over, making it harder for them to succeed as they battle feelings of low self-esteem, second-guess themselves, and experience performance anxiety. Some may actually suffer serious depression. Among my MBA “imposters,” a few left School after the first week of class.

Most, however, succeeded in completing their MBAs with honors. They used the phenomenon as an incentive to succeed, setting high standards for performance and worrying about being under-prepared. They were (and are) achievers, the kind we could benefit from hiring. But how do we identify the right kind of impostors to bring on board?

Believe me, they become very good at covering up their feelings. If impostors—even the achievers—were to expose their fears and other impostor-like feelings in an interview, we probably wouldn’t hire them. How do we distinguish between productive and nonproductive impostors? Will the person overcome by fears and uncertainty let it show differently than a candidate unconsciously using the feeling to succeed? Should we even allow anyone to interview them, instead relying solely on what such imposters have achieved in order to eliminate interview bias?

Should we be focusing on hiring impostors anyway? There are probably plenty of other candidates with more “normal” confidence levels, motivations, and abilities. An organization comprised solely of impostors could be a pretty exhausting, chaotic place. On the other hand, can we afford not to hire a few of them?

How do you hire an impostor? What do YOU think?

To read more

Pauline Rose Clance, The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like a Fake (New York: Bantam Books, 1985).

Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

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