Updated: Aug 23, 2022
This is the first in a series of blogs in which we will look at some of the common issues faced by modern leaders and how they can be addressed. Today, we will consider impostor syndrome.
What is it?
Impostor syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon, is a term originally coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. Merriam-Webster.Com defines it as “a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.”
Those with the syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements or position and the resulting high esteem in which others hold them. They think themselves to be unworthy and unqualified, and live with a fear of being ‘found out’. They are thus excessively wary of making mistakes and often find this fear to be their greatest barrier to moving out of their comfort zones.
In a similar way to perfectionists, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform flawlessly. However, even when they achieve success, the relief is often fleeting as they start to worry about the next task.
How Common is it?
If this is you, then be encouraged: it is actually a quite common issue and there are a number of things you can do to mitigate the effects (see below).
It is estimated that around 70% of adults experience impostorism at some time in their lives (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome). Men and women are both susceptible, though it is more common in women, and high achievers seem to be particularly vulnerable.
Howard Schultz, as president and CEO of Starbucks, shared that he and other CEOs are prone to it. Others who have shared their impostor insecurities include Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg and even Albert Einstein! A comment in ‘CEO Today’ magazine by a serial CEO turnaround and master coach and mentor stated that “I know that 85% of CEOs admit to suffering from it and the other 15% are hiding it. In addition, it affects 80% of their directors and over 40% of all their employees” (How Impostor Syndrome Is Holding You and Your Business Back (ceotodaymagazine.com).
A survey by HBR revealed that the most common fear among the CEOs questioned was the fear of “being found to be incompetent” (https://hbr.org/2015/02/what-ceos-are-afraid-of).
How does it Affect People?
For most people, the syndrome is transient and limited. It is most prevalent when promoted or taking on a new role, especially if one is in a minority when we tend to put extra pressure on ourselves.
For some, though, it can be a crippling problem. Although they may have mastered the art of ‘faking it’, as they see it, the internal stresses and pressures can be debilitating leading, over time, to a loss of performance and potential mental health problems.
Some acute sufferers have even reported that their main emotion on leaving a role, whether for a good or bad reason, was one of relief.
How can I Overcome it?
If you or someone you know suffers from this syndrome, the following steps can help change the mindset to eradicate or at least reduce the negative effects:
- Remember the past. Think of the successes that you had to work hardest for and that were a fair reward for your efforts and skill. Remember how you coped with the pressures and what it felt like when you achieved the desired result.
Note: Keeping a personal journal of your current trials and successes, including your thoughts and feelings, will help you to remember the past – in the future!
- Remember that it is common. Around 70% of us feel the same way at times (see above). You are not alone!
- Cultivate a learning mindset. Remember that no one is perfect: we all make mistakes. View your mistakes as lessons to learn from and by doing so you will experience limitations differently. Also, it will help you to be more confident in similar situations when they arise. Further, do not be intimidated by those who seem better able to ‘wing it’: doing so does not mean that they are better able than you to deal with the situation.
- Be objective. You were not promoted or appointed to your current role by accident. What were the strengths on which your appointment was based?
Note: recruiting/developing a board or team with a broad range of strengths and characters can be helpful here. A common mistake is to select ‘people like me’. A more diverse composition of characters and competencies will not only generate more ideas and challenge assumptions, but it will also allow members to cover each other’s weaker areas.
- Avoid setting unrealistically high goals. Know when ‘good’ is good enough. Senior leaders are not appointed to know everything and do everything perfectly. Trying to do so is a recipe for under-performance, lower staff engagement and burnout.
- Understand the benefits of being new in a role. You can ask questions more widely and openly and approach issues and opportunities in different, unconventional ways.
- Keep the correct perspective. Whilst it is right to be motivated to do our best and succeed, as long as we really have done our best then worrying will not add anything of value. When tempted to do so, think logically by balancing thought patterns of doom and gloom by also thinking of the best that can come out of the situation. Also, call to mind the things that will not be affected even if the worst should happen. For example, your family will still love you (I hope!), your life will still have meaning, etc. This is not to plan for failure but to keep a perspective that will reduce the crushing anxiety that may otherwise stymie your performance. A healthy fear can boost performance, a crippling one will almost certainly hinder your chances of success.
- Take and give credit where it is due. Adopt a humble approach to credit by accepting a ‘well done’ when it is earned and by being diligent about praising others when their contributions deserve it.
Note: take time to enjoy your successes. Psychological completion refers to the satisfaction we experience when we have succeeded in a task or challenge. It is important to do this since it allows us to absorb the positive effect of what we have accomplished. For example, people who conquer Mount Everest do not just get to the top, put their foot on the summit and immediately turn around and head down the mountain. Time and weather permitting, they spend a few moments enjoying their success.
- Talk to someone. Try to find a mentor who has trodden a similar path. In addition, an external coach can be a great help since it is often difficult to share everything with direct line managers or others in the same organisation. The choice of mentor and coach is critical: he/she should be able to intelligently affirm, but also be constructively honest about your areas for development whilst being able to empathise by drawing on his/her and others’ experiences. In addition, create feedback loops with your most important stakeholders
The key to success is to change your mindset with objective truths and to remain authentic (modify behaviours, learn new skills, etc., but be yourself!).
Finally, although we tend to see impostor syndrome in an exclusively negative way, there is a key benefit so long as it does not progress to the point at which it becomes incapacitating: occasional feelings of impostorism help ensure leaders do not get too egotistical. It helps them know their limits and makes them more likely to seek guidance when appropriate. In doing so, they show humility which is a key requirement for effective teamworking (it is one of the 3 key traits identified by Patrick Lencioni in ‘The Ideal Team Player’).
If you are one of the many who suffer from this syndrome, I hope this blog is an encouragement and help to you.
Aspire MCL has a long and successful track record of helping leaders overcome barriers and realise their full potential. Our principal consultant, Ian Kirkby, is a certified NLP coach and an experienced senior leader who has worked in many sectors and cultures. He engages with clients to tailor coaching, mentoring, psychometric assessment and training programmes to ensure the focus is on practical results which service desired outcomes. He has a professional and friendly approach and finds it rewarding to see leaders and their teams not only improve their performance but enjoy doing so!
Testimonials can be seen here: https://www.aspiremcl.co.uk/testimonials
Get in touch today by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling on 020 3904 7501.
As noted above, this is the first blog in a series addressing leadership issues. If there is a topic you would like Aspire to cover in subsequent releases, please comment or email email@example.com. We will not spam you!
Aspire MCL: Leadership problems - sorted!