Is Impostor Syndrome holding you back? Try this five-step model to move past it


Impostor Syndrome can quickly wear you down. Leadership strategist Shadé Zahrai has helped thousands of leaders counter these feelings by using her POWER framework. It might just work for you too.

Shadé Zahrai began every work day feeling nauseous and riddled with self-doubt.

This was despite her strong track record of excellent performance and academic achievements.

Fixated on all her ‘gaps’ and what she couldn’t do, she remembers feeling like an impostor during her years working in a top-tier commercial legal firm.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged in that environment and I didn’t believe I deserved to be there,” she says. “It was entirely in my head… I gave it power over me and it made my first few years almost unbearable,” says Zahrai, who will be delivering a keynote talk at AHRI’s Convention in August

“My Impostor Syndrome was also coupled with a poor workplace culture which didn’t align with my values. Because of this misalignment, and the anxiety I was experiencing as a result, my physical health deteriorated and I was very unwell during those early years.”

Trying to shake Impostor Syndrome 

Zahrai hoped a change in career direction might liberate her from Impostor Syndrome, but it followed her out of law and into banking, which was when she opened up about it to a mentor.

“As I sat there sipping my drink, feeling depleted, I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t feel like I have the skills to succeed here. I haven’t mastered financial modelling. I’m not that great with Excel. What if someone finds out I can’t do it?”

Her mentor reassured her and said: “You’re not here because of what you can’t do. You’re here because of what you can do. Instead of focussing on what you lack, focus on how to bring your strengths to life.”

The conversation proved pivotal in Zahrai’s career, prompting her to adjust her perspective.

“It was the right nudge for me to understand that in order for me to succeed I had to redirect my focus onto what I can give in my role… Staying true to this ethos is what gave me the courage to [show] initiative, to take risks, to step out of my comfort zone and to persevere with learning new skills.”

Shade Zahrai has worked through Impostor Syndrome and helps others overcome these feelings with her five-step model.
Image: Shadé Zahrai (supplied).

Zahrai went on to enjoy a fulfilling career in banking, presenting to thousands of senior leaders and speaking at major industry events. But what filled up her cup the most was coaching and mentoring people to overcome similar obstacles to what she’d experienced. 

She is now Principal and Director of Influenceo Global, a leadership development, consulting and research firm that helps organisations develop high-performing leaders, teams and cultures. 

“Years later, through the work we’re now doing with organisations all over the globe and having supported thousands of professionals worldwide, I’ve come to realise that Impostor Syndrome never really disappears. It’s always there whenever you face the unfamiliar. So the goal should not be to eliminate it, but to transform your relationship with it.”

Zahrai has combined her insights and learnings into five core pillars, known as the POWER Framework, which she uses to help people navigate feelings of Impostor Syndrome to build meaningful and enriching careers.

1. Positioning

Questions such as: ‘What is your unique value proposition? What is your personal brand and how do you bring your values to life through what you say and do?’ fall under the first pillar in POWER – positioning.

“We start with this pillar as it’s essential to first recognise that your positioning and brand influences your opportunities,” says Zahrai.

“Not only that, you need to become crystal clear on your values and your purpose to ensure that you’re crafting a career aligned with what’s most important to you.

“Too many professionals are climbing the ladder fast… but it’s the wrong ladder.”

In Zahrai’s experience, she initially didn’t understand what unique strengths she brought to the workplace.  

“I didn’t believe I could contribute anything and this stripped me of confidence and my desire to grow. Following that impactful conversation early on and the advice to ‘focus on how to bring your strengths to life’, I intentionally re-assessed,” she says.

“I knew my strengths revolved around working with people and creatively problem solving by putting empathy first, so I started volunteering for opportunities outside of my job description that allowed me to leverage these strengths and showcase them. This was how I was able to align my career with my values, and eventually get recognised for it.” 

2. Ownership

We all have moments of self-doubt or internal blocks that hold us back.

These could present in the form of unhealthy comparisons of yourself against others, a tendency to focus on negative details while overlooking positive feedback, or an inability to say ‘no’ to others, which can lead to feelings of emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Zahrai empowers people to identify and take ownership over these internal barriers, then helping them to shifting their focus through ‘cognitive reframing’ with techniques such as:

  • Avoiding absolutes – take ‘never’ and ‘always’ out of your vocabulary. “This can subconsciously block you because you don’t give yourself room for change. Instead of, ‘People always ignore me,” reframe to “Sometimes people at work don’t seem to listen when I’m speaking. How can I get them to pay more attention?”
  • Changing language intensity – Change “this is the absolute worst…” to “this is challenging, but I’m learning.”
  • Changing from “Why” to “What” – Instead of “Why is this happening to me?” reframe to “What is this trying to teach me?”
  • Reframing your ‘what ifs’ – Instead of “What if I fail?” reframe to, “What if I learn and grow?” Or instead of, “What if I don’t achieve my goals?” reframe to, “What if I learn something on the journey?”

3. Wow-Rate

Most employees bring strong skills and expertise to a role, but how will you stand out from the pack?

It’s all about making yourself indispensable, says Zahrai, who shares some powerful tips to help people position themselves to become irreplaceable employees.

First and foremost, employers want a reliable employee – “someone who they can trust to do what needs to be done”.

“This involves being proactive, keeping your commitments, setting expectations and taking full responsibility.”

Zahrai also advises employees to put their hand up for opportunities outside their direct role to increase their exposure and visibility, and to open possibilities for networking with others in the organisation.

Doing so signals that someone is willing to go above and beyond to help the company achieve its objectives, to develop their own skill set, and have impact on others.

“They’re known for delivering beyond expectations and finding ways to help others. Visibly commit yourself to making a difference to your company and your team. Become someone others reach out to for support, mentoring and solutions.”

Zahrai is a firm believer that the relationships you build along the way are just as important as the work you’re doing.

“The quality of your network can’t be overstated. If you invest in cultivating strong relationships founded on trust, where key people of influence know about you, your brand and the quality of your work, you’re already three steps ahead. Relationships are golden – never burn bridges. Mentors are also extremely valuable to help you identify blindspots and gaps.”

These gaps in knowledge or skills can often be filled through job shadowing or micro-learning.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, 50 per cent of employees will need to re-skill by 2025 in order to remain relevant, 

“The ability to innovate, solve problems, learn fast and manage stress have taken on new importance in the job skill forecast for the next few years.

“So find ways to develop these skills through micro-learning, whether short online courses or speaking to your manager to add it to your development plan through a sponsored course.”


Want to hear more from Shadé? Book your spot at AHRI’s Convention in August today.


4. Enablers

Producing great work is one thing, but to be recognised for your efforts and progress in your career, you need to be able to position yourself and advocate for your own success in performance appraisals.

Zahrai points to a 2021 study, published in the Harvard Business Review, which looked at four Fortune 500 companies to illustrate her point.

“The research found that, on average, managers did not know or could not remember 60 per cent of the work their teams do.” 

“‘Enablers’ relates to the elements you need to master in your career that will enable you to succeed, including making sure the right people in the organisation know about you and the value you bring.”

To support people in sharing their good work, Zahrai encourages employers to provide a forum for people to showcase their achievements.

“I’ve come to realise that Impostor Syndrome never really disappears. It’s always there whenever you face the unfamiliar. So the goal should not be to eliminate it, but to transform your relationship with it.” – Shadé Zahrai

“Too often good work goes overlooked and unnoticed simply because it’s not discussed. If you provide a forum for this – beyond the formal reward and recognition programs – people feel a greater sense of ownership over their work. 

“It encourages sharing, promotes greater understanding of what everyone is working on and ensures the right people know what’s happening on the ground. It can also instill confidence in those who lack it, by helping them acknowledge how they’re contributing, and being applauded for that.”

5. Rebound-Rate

Even the most capable people experience setbacks. What sets someone apart is how they bounce back from disappointments.

Zahrai recalls coaching one of her clients in a Fortune 500 through a challenging experience that occurred when a leader first stepped into a more senior leadership team in a different division of the business.

“She wanted to make her mark early and convey that she was different to other leaders, so immediately changed the team’s operating rhythm to match the successful rhythm she established in her previous team. 

“She excitedly announced the change, only to be hit with emails that the new rhythm was counter to what the team had all agreed on only months earlier, and they didn’t appreciate the approach.

“This was not how she wanted to start her leadership and she was concerned she had tarnished her reputation in the team, eroding trust.”

Zahrai helped the leader move past this setback by coaching her through four steps:

    • Radical candour

      “We encouraged her to embrace honesty both with herself and with her team to acknowledge what went wrong. She called a meeting and shared that she was nervous about stepping in and wanted to kick things off with a bang, but in her excitement she acted too quickly without thinking things through.”Why this step is important: Vulnerability builds trust and reliability, says Zahrai. It also opens the door for the team to take responsibility for their own mistakes.

    • Take ownership

      “She took responsibility and was transparent about what she could have done better, sharing that she should have first taken the time to understand this new team, to get to know the people in it and to understand the existing rhythm before proposing any changes.”

      Why this step is important: “If you play the blame game, then setbacks or missed outcomes will always be someone else’s fault, and this is detrimental to culture. Instead, take responsibility and be transparent about what you could have done better.”

    • Future focus

      “Her final step was to share what she learned from the experience and what she will commit to doing differently in the future to prevent this from happening again. She shared that she’d be more collaborative and seek input before any team-wide changes, and she reiterated her enthusiasm for the team and their goals.” 

      Why this step is important: “By envisioning a positive outcome you’ll regain your composure and be able to see a path forward. Your team needs to see humility in action and a firm willingness to acknowledge and move forward to help them regain confidence in your leadership.”

    • Reflection.

      “This step involves deep, private reflection on the whole situation to seek to better understand what unfolded, how you responded to it and what you learned about leadership, about challenge and about how you react to uncertainty.”

      Why this step is important: “This step wraps up the process by allowing you to truly learn and grow from the experience.”

In Zahrai’s words, “Setbacks can be challenging, but they don’t have to derail your leadership.”

The same can be said for Impostor Syndrome. While it’s not easy to overcome, and may re-surface at different points in time, being equipped with techniques to keep it in check can set you on a path towards a fulfilling and enriching career.

guest
2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Danielle Clark
Danielle Clark
14 days ago

Thank you for this article. Really great to show and share that vulnerability with growing leaders.

Debra Shifflett
Debra Shifflett
11 days ago

I enjoyed the article and have experienced Imposter Syndrome throughout my career, and strive to continue my own personal growth. Keep up the good work of mentoring!

More on HRM

Is Impostor Syndrome holding you back? Try this five-step model to move past it


Impostor Syndrome can quickly wear you down. Leadership strategist Shadé Zahrai has helped thousands of leaders counter these feelings by using her POWER framework. It might just work for you too.

Shadé Zahrai began every work day feeling nauseous and riddled with self-doubt.

This was despite her strong track record of excellent performance and academic achievements.

Fixated on all her ‘gaps’ and what she couldn’t do, she remembers feeling like an impostor during her years working in a top-tier commercial legal firm.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged in that environment and I didn’t believe I deserved to be there,” she says. “It was entirely in my head… I gave it power over me and it made my first few years almost unbearable,” says Zahrai, who will be delivering a keynote talk at AHRI’s Convention in August

“My Impostor Syndrome was also coupled with a poor workplace culture which didn’t align with my values. Because of this misalignment, and the anxiety I was experiencing as a result, my physical health deteriorated and I was very unwell during those early years.”

Trying to shake Impostor Syndrome 

Zahrai hoped a change in career direction might liberate her from Impostor Syndrome, but it followed her out of law and into banking, which was when she opened up about it to a mentor.

“As I sat there sipping my drink, feeling depleted, I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t feel like I have the skills to succeed here. I haven’t mastered financial modelling. I’m not that great with Excel. What if someone finds out I can’t do it?”

Her mentor reassured her and said: “You’re not here because of what you can’t do. You’re here because of what you can do. Instead of focussing on what you lack, focus on how to bring your strengths to life.”

The conversation proved pivotal in Zahrai’s career, prompting her to adjust her perspective.

“It was the right nudge for me to understand that in order for me to succeed I had to redirect my focus onto what I can give in my role… Staying true to this ethos is what gave me the courage to [show] initiative, to take risks, to step out of my comfort zone and to persevere with learning new skills.”

Shade Zahrai has worked through Impostor Syndrome and helps others overcome these feelings with her five-step model.
Image: Shadé Zahrai (supplied).

Zahrai went on to enjoy a fulfilling career in banking, presenting to thousands of senior leaders and speaking at major industry events. But what filled up her cup the most was coaching and mentoring people to overcome similar obstacles to what she’d experienced. 

She is now Principal and Director of Influenceo Global, a leadership development, consulting and research firm that helps organisations develop high-performing leaders, teams and cultures. 

“Years later, through the work we’re now doing with organisations all over the globe and having supported thousands of professionals worldwide, I’ve come to realise that Impostor Syndrome never really disappears. It’s always there whenever you face the unfamiliar. So the goal should not be to eliminate it, but to transform your relationship with it.”

Zahrai has combined her insights and learnings into five core pillars, known as the POWER Framework, which she uses to help people navigate feelings of Impostor Syndrome to build meaningful and enriching careers.

1. Positioning

Questions such as: ‘What is your unique value proposition? What is your personal brand and how do you bring your values to life through what you say and do?’ fall under the first pillar in POWER – positioning.

“We start with this pillar as it’s essential to first recognise that your positioning and brand influences your opportunities,” says Zahrai.

“Not only that, you need to become crystal clear on your values and your purpose to ensure that you’re crafting a career aligned with what’s most important to you.

“Too many professionals are climbing the ladder fast… but it’s the wrong ladder.”

In Zahrai’s experience, she initially didn’t understand what unique strengths she brought to the workplace.  

“I didn’t believe I could contribute anything and this stripped me of confidence and my desire to grow. Following that impactful conversation early on and the advice to ‘focus on how to bring your strengths to life’, I intentionally re-assessed,” she says.

“I knew my strengths revolved around working with people and creatively problem solving by putting empathy first, so I started volunteering for opportunities outside of my job description that allowed me to leverage these strengths and showcase them. This was how I was able to align my career with my values, and eventually get recognised for it.” 

2. Ownership

We all have moments of self-doubt or internal blocks that hold us back.

These could present in the form of unhealthy comparisons of yourself against others, a tendency to focus on negative details while overlooking positive feedback, or an inability to say ‘no’ to others, which can lead to feelings of emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Zahrai empowers people to identify and take ownership over these internal barriers, then helping them to shifting their focus through ‘cognitive reframing’ with techniques such as:

  • Avoiding absolutes – take ‘never’ and ‘always’ out of your vocabulary. “This can subconsciously block you because you don’t give yourself room for change. Instead of, ‘People always ignore me,” reframe to “Sometimes people at work don’t seem to listen when I’m speaking. How can I get them to pay more attention?”
  • Changing language intensity – Change “this is the absolute worst…” to “this is challenging, but I’m learning.”
  • Changing from “Why” to “What” – Instead of “Why is this happening to me?” reframe to “What is this trying to teach me?”
  • Reframing your ‘what ifs’ – Instead of “What if I fail?” reframe to, “What if I learn and grow?” Or instead of, “What if I don’t achieve my goals?” reframe to, “What if I learn something on the journey?”

3. Wow-Rate

Most employees bring strong skills and expertise to a role, but how will you stand out from the pack?

It’s all about making yourself indispensable, says Zahrai, who shares some powerful tips to help people position themselves to become irreplaceable employees.

First and foremost, employers want a reliable employee – “someone who they can trust to do what needs to be done”.

“This involves being proactive, keeping your commitments, setting expectations and taking full responsibility.”

Zahrai also advises employees to put their hand up for opportunities outside their direct role to increase their exposure and visibility, and to open possibilities for networking with others in the organisation.

Doing so signals that someone is willing to go above and beyond to help the company achieve its objectives, to develop their own skill set, and have impact on others.

“They’re known for delivering beyond expectations and finding ways to help others. Visibly commit yourself to making a difference to your company and your team. Become someone others reach out to for support, mentoring and solutions.”

Zahrai is a firm believer that the relationships you build along the way are just as important as the work you’re doing.

“The quality of your network can’t be overstated. If you invest in cultivating strong relationships founded on trust, where key people of influence know about you, your brand and the quality of your work, you’re already three steps ahead. Relationships are golden – never burn bridges. Mentors are also extremely valuable to help you identify blindspots and gaps.”

These gaps in knowledge or skills can often be filled through job shadowing or micro-learning.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, 50 per cent of employees will need to re-skill by 2025 in order to remain relevant, 

“The ability to innovate, solve problems, learn fast and manage stress have taken on new importance in the job skill forecast for the next few years.

“So find ways to develop these skills through micro-learning, whether short online courses or speaking to your manager to add it to your development plan through a sponsored course.”


Want to hear more from Shadé? Book your spot at AHRI’s Convention in August today.


4. Enablers

Producing great work is one thing, but to be recognised for your efforts and progress in your career, you need to be able to position yourself and advocate for your own success in performance appraisals.

Zahrai points to a 2021 study, published in the Harvard Business Review, which looked at four Fortune 500 companies to illustrate her point.

“The research found that, on average, managers did not know or could not remember 60 per cent of the work their teams do.” 

“‘Enablers’ relates to the elements you need to master in your career that will enable you to succeed, including making sure the right people in the organisation know about you and the value you bring.”

To support people in sharing their good work, Zahrai encourages employers to provide a forum for people to showcase their achievements.

“I’ve come to realise that Impostor Syndrome never really disappears. It’s always there whenever you face the unfamiliar. So the goal should not be to eliminate it, but to transform your relationship with it.” – Shadé Zahrai

“Too often good work goes overlooked and unnoticed simply because it’s not discussed. If you provide a forum for this – beyond the formal reward and recognition programs – people feel a greater sense of ownership over their work. 

“It encourages sharing, promotes greater understanding of what everyone is working on and ensures the right people know what’s happening on the ground. It can also instill confidence in those who lack it, by helping them acknowledge how they’re contributing, and being applauded for that.”

5. Rebound-Rate

Even the most capable people experience setbacks. What sets someone apart is how they bounce back from disappointments.

Zahrai recalls coaching one of her clients in a Fortune 500 through a challenging experience that occurred when a leader first stepped into a more senior leadership team in a different division of the business.

“She wanted to make her mark early and convey that she was different to other leaders, so immediately changed the team’s operating rhythm to match the successful rhythm she established in her previous team. 

“She excitedly announced the change, only to be hit with emails that the new rhythm was counter to what the team had all agreed on only months earlier, and they didn’t appreciate the approach.

“This was not how she wanted to start her leadership and she was concerned she had tarnished her reputation in the team, eroding trust.”

Zahrai helped the leader move past this setback by coaching her through four steps:

    • Radical candour

      “We encouraged her to embrace honesty both with herself and with her team to acknowledge what went wrong. She called a meeting and shared that she was nervous about stepping in and wanted to kick things off with a bang, but in her excitement she acted too quickly without thinking things through.”Why this step is important: Vulnerability builds trust and reliability, says Zahrai. It also opens the door for the team to take responsibility for their own mistakes.

    • Take ownership

      “She took responsibility and was transparent about what she could have done better, sharing that she should have first taken the time to understand this new team, to get to know the people in it and to understand the existing rhythm before proposing any changes.”

      Why this step is important: “If you play the blame game, then setbacks or missed outcomes will always be someone else’s fault, and this is detrimental to culture. Instead, take responsibility and be transparent about what you could have done better.”

    • Future focus

      “Her final step was to share what she learned from the experience and what she will commit to doing differently in the future to prevent this from happening again. She shared that she’d be more collaborative and seek input before any team-wide changes, and she reiterated her enthusiasm for the team and their goals.” 

      Why this step is important: “By envisioning a positive outcome you’ll regain your composure and be able to see a path forward. Your team needs to see humility in action and a firm willingness to acknowledge and move forward to help them regain confidence in your leadership.”

    • Reflection.

      “This step involves deep, private reflection on the whole situation to seek to better understand what unfolded, how you responded to it and what you learned about leadership, about challenge and about how you react to uncertainty.”

      Why this step is important: “This step wraps up the process by allowing you to truly learn and grow from the experience.”

In Zahrai’s words, “Setbacks can be challenging, but they don’t have to derail your leadership.”

The same can be said for Impostor Syndrome. While it’s not easy to overcome, and may re-surface at different points in time, being equipped with techniques to keep it in check can set you on a path towards a fulfilling and enriching career.

guest
2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Danielle Clark
Danielle Clark
14 days ago

Thank you for this article. Really great to show and share that vulnerability with growing leaders.

Debra Shifflett
Debra Shifflett
11 days ago

I enjoyed the article and have experienced Imposter Syndrome throughout my career, and strive to continue my own personal growth. Keep up the good work of mentoring!

More on HRM