Is Imposter Syndrome Real
Posted on 6th July 2020 at 11:29
A few years ago I was approached by a client who wanted to explore her performance in a new role. She was a highly experienced leader who had recently been promoted and her team had expanded. She now had allied functions, which were not within her area of professional training or expertise, under her leadership. She initially enjoyed the role and the goodwill that was shown to her by her fellow leaders in assuring her that she would be really successful in the role and they were welcoming her input, ideas and energy.
At this point in her life she believed that she had finally gotten the payoff for her hard work and dedication. A role she had always wanted, teenagers who were on the cusp of adulthood and a supportive partner, who was very proud of everything she had achieved.
After a few months of getting to know the role and the wider team, she began to experience a different set of emotions. This was affecting her behaviour, her decisions, her choice points and her overall performance. Because of the expansion of her role she began to feel that her initial expertise in her particular area of Operations was no longer adequate and did’nt equip her for the decisions that she needed to make. Her experience of some of her team was impatience about her perceived lack of detailed knowledge on the day to day complexities within their own function. She began to spend long hours trying to gain knowledge in a new area, that had taken those
she was managing 20 years to build. She began to question her judgment, her ability to do the job and her ability to motivate and engage her team. She doubted her track record and began to believe that any day Senior Management were going to tap her on the shoulder and say ‘I’m really sorry, we’ve made a huge error, this is not the role for you’…………
Of course this never happened because she had proved her performance in the past, had gone through a rigorous selection process and had ably demonstrated with her ideas, innovations and strategic vision, that she was the person for the role. Yet she was feeling anything but competent, let alone confident. When she came to see me to begin coaching, she explained that she felt like she was in a role that was too much of a stretch and spent most of her days just coping, experiencing anxiety and doubting her thoughts and actions. In fact, she felt like an Imposter!
If the above experience rings any bells with you, I would hazard a guess that you and my client are not alone. Many leaders that I have worked with, struggle with the same feeling. They struggle on alone, feeling more and more disconnected and ‘fake’. They have elaborate rituals and habits to make them feel more comfortable and to trick both themselves and others, that everything is normal and they are in control. Yet internally they are anything but in control with constant doubts, second guessing, making assumptions, jumping to conclusions and generally being really tough on themselves. You may feel you’re being really ‘phoney’ and you’re somehow going to be caught out in your deception. Relax…… you’re just experiencing what most leaders experience at some time or other - most of us have been there!
Typically ‘Imposter Syndrome’ it manifests itself in you feeling that you don’t deserve to have the role you have and that there are far more qualified individuals who could do the job better. You can then begin to doubt yourself, second guess your decisions, begin to be slightly more risk adverse and overall, spend a lot of time fretting and being anxious over your performance. Imposter syndrome is very real. It’s not to be confused with any other anxiety disorder, but it shares some of the same characteristics.
It does tend to manifest itself to a greater extent with female leaders, despite academic and leadership achievements. So, despite the fact that many female leaders have been formally recognised for their achievements and have received validation, somehow that’s not enough to make them feel secure in their role. However, I have to emphasise, the syndrome also affects many male leaders and I have worked with both.
To give you an example of how mad it can sound, it’s like Monet believing he was’nt a good painter, or Beckett thinking he could’nt write. All of the evidence points to the fact that it is an internal illusion with a high degree of negative self talk. Nevertheless, it’s not very pleasant and it impacts performance and productivity if left unresolved.
How might the practical impact of Imposter Syndrome show up for a leader? Over time they may begin to see that their team is underperforming because decisions from the leader are slower. There may be risk aversion creeping in to move to solutions. The leader may feel that they have to put it in even longer hours, leading to burn out and even bigger issues with productivity. Projects might be slow to complete or fall behind because communications from the leader are not clear and they doubt their decisions. Furthermore, in an effort to manage the overwhelm and lack of confidence, interesting projects might be turned down and shunned and the leader and their teams don’t get the opportunity of further development/stretch.
Reads like a really uncomfortable place to be, does’nt it? So what can leaders do to counteract it and move into being their fully productive, engaged and motivated self?
I shared with you my story of my client at the start of this article………so here’s what we concentrated on developing with her. We developed a ‘game plan’ for her to action after each session. She worked hard to explore her mindset, her emotions and her self talk and perceptions. She even gave the ‘Imposter’ a name – ‘Cassandra’!
1.Seek help and ask for support
Well the first thing is to admit it to yourself or to someone you trust. Tell them what has been going on for you and begin to articulate the need for support. My client ‘Joanne’ spent our first session articulating how she felt and the impact it had on her, both professionally and personally. She discovered who she could reach out to and found that (a) when she admitted the problem and (b) when she shared it with someone she trusted, she automatically felt a sense of relief and a mindset shift.
2.Understand the learning mindset
Many leaders with Imposter Syndrome have a tendency to believe that they have to manage everything themselves. The fact that they may have been promoted means they have to know everything about the role. Many are looking after areas of the business which is not within their professional area of expertise. You can’t know everything, nor should you set about trying to learn something completely new that has taken someone on your team 20 years to master. Lean on their expertise and understand you can learn the necessary key insights to ensure you make sound decisions, but leave the detail to these experts. This can be done collaboratively, collectively and expertly.
3.Model a climate of inclusion
Great leaders are receptive to input from others – ideas, innovations and creative ways of addressing complexities. Make a point of creating an environment and giving permission for others to admit they don’t know something. As a leader you need to be able to model this yourself and express your authentic self. A leader who can admit they don’t wear their superhero cape every day is a very compelling leader.
4. Get Perspective
Leaders who suffer from Imposter Syndrome have a tendency to believe they are the ONLY person suffering in this way. That EVERYONE else has it sussed. Around 70% of high achieving leaders, have at one time or another believed, that they are an imposter, Irregardless of previous success and evidence to the contrary.
Joanne understood all of the amazing things she had achieved. She understood and articulated the gruelling selection process and what that meant in choosing her for the role. She began to trust her high level of achievements both academic and professional and understood the value she was bringing to the role. She also understood the futility of expecting to know everything. She did’nt expect that in her team, so why would it make sense to expect it of herself? This new perspective made a world of difference to how she viewed herself.
5. Flex your Inner Writer muscle
Writing down your thoughts and indeed what you have achieved is a great way of evidencing the futility of what you have been experiencing. This achieves two things (a) it gets it out of your system and onto paper and (b) it’s a very practical way of you seeing what you actually have done and achieved. When Joanne did this, she found she could’nt stop writing as she had done so much professionally. She had been involved in so many interesting projects and bodies of work. It really helped her assuage her anxiety, but also recognise her knowledge, expertise and how far she had travelled.
Through our work together, Joanne felt her confidence returning, she reached out more for support and discovered that her team came up with great solutions that she had’nt even contemplated and overall her performance and productivity improved exponentially. She got herself back!
She also learned some valuable tools to use with her team on an ongoing basis and committed to set up an environment where her team felt supported and encouraged to develop. She ensured that when one of the team was promoted that she had a dedicated conversation with them about her experience and encouraged them to reach out for support and practical suggestions to manage their transition. She also got her personal life back on track and understood the importance of perspective and to maintain boundaries on hours and resourcing herself.
If any of the above sounds familiar and you would like specific support in overcoming Imposter Syndrome yourself contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Inner Compass is a learning and development company specialising in organisational development, and transformational change for teams, leaders and individuals. To find out more about Orla Scott and Inner Compass Click Here.
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