Are You an ‘Imposter?’ If So, the Workplace Needs You

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James T. Berger
Senior Marketing Writer

Published March 4, 2016

When I hear the word “Imposter,” I immediately think of “The Great Imposter” movie starring Tony Curtis (1961) that portrayed the exploits of Ferdinand Waldo Demara and later, “Catch Me if You Can,” the 2002 film directed by Steven Spielberg starring Leonardo DiCaprio who portrayed Frank Abagnale. Both Demara and Abagnale are real-life figures whose behavior, although most interesting, is also criminal.

Researcher Pauline Rose Chance for years has been studying another kind of “imposter,” the one who inhabits the workplace. In the February 3, 2016, issue of the online Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge,” (a free weekly newsletter), Harvard Prof. Emeritus James L. Heskett authors a brief but intriguing article entitled “How Do You Hire an ‘Imposter’?”

The article goes on to describe the ‘imposter’ as a bright individual with a king-size inferiority complex. Such people don’t think they deserve the brains or good fortune they have been handled and further believe their success is simply a lucky fluke.

Here’s what Haskett writes:

“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.”

Chance defines the “imposter phenomenon” as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” and adds that those who experience, for the most part, are “people who have achieved something; people who are demonstrably anything but frauds.”

Heskett points out that some of these imposters have real mental problems and their low self-esteem jeopardizes performance. They end up second-guessing themselves and experience “performance anxiety.” Some, according to Heskett, also may suffer serious depression.

However, according to Heskett, most imposters succeed and complete their MBA programs with honors. He adds “they used the phenomenon as an incentive to succeed, setting high standards for performance and worrying about being under-prepared.”

The key question Heskett asks is (1) how do you find them and (2) how do you hire them.

As a veteran of more than 50 years in the workplace, I see the imposter as a throw-back to the Horatio Alger business hero. In this era of know-it-all computer whizzes, I find it refreshing to uncover intelligent, sensitive people who aren’t so sure of themselves. Those computer know-it-alls actually know very little and usually lack the general knowledge and the ability to think within the framework of a liberal education.

If I were hiring, I would seek out the imposter because that person will come to work on time, will work hard and will constantly fight to show him/herself how really good they are.

About The Author

James T. Berger headshot
James T. Berger, Senior Marketing Writer of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.