I attended an interesting workshop recently by Rita Collins CBE, author of Love Your Imposter: Be Your Best Self, Flaws and All. In the workshop, Collins discussed the concept of the ‘Imposter Syndrome’, originally introduced by psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.
I had heard of the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ before; however, the workshop provided me with an opportunity to grapple with the concept and apply the thinking to my own life. It was in this workshop that I realized that I had experienced some of the challenges associated with it at certain points in my career – usually when I had taken on a more complex role – i.e.:
- Having a constant fear of being called out for not being good enough or being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of success in this area
- Externalising success (giving credit to others for work that I had delivered successfully), and internalising failures (blaming myself for anything that went wrong)
- Convincing myself that achieving difficult goals was more down to luck than the hours of hard work and skill needed to achieve them
- That others were more qualified than me to share their views on topics for which I was hired as the expert – illustrated in the below image:
I know that I am not alone in experiencing these feelings – as Collins points out, 70% of people feel like an imposter at some point in their professional life. Imposter Syndrome affects both men and women, but research suggests that it disproportionately affects women. Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and executive coach in New York, says that “women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk” of experiencing imposter feelings.
I started reflecting on the impact of this in organisations and spent some time thinking about how leaders can better support those people on their teams who may be experiencing imposter feelings. There are some practical tools managers can use to have an immediate impact on their teams, and there are some deeper systemic organizational changes that can be made to support a sustainable culture of inclusion and acceptance.
For managers looking to support those employees who recognize their imposter feelings in the short-term, here are three top tips you can use:
1. Let your employees know that imposter feelings are not uncommon.
So many well-known, high achievers have experienced imposter feelings. Do some research to find out who these people are and use some of them as examples that would resonate with your team.
Some examples include:
- Michelle Obama: “I still have a little impostor syndrome… It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”
- Meryl Streep: “You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’”
- Robert Pattinson: “In a lot of ways, I’m quite proud that I’m still getting jobs. Because of falling into a job, you always feel like you’re a fraud, that you’re going to be thrown out at any second.”
2. Affirm your employees’ worth.
According to author and professor of psychology, W. Brad Johnson and author and professor of sociology, David G. Smith, we should remember that there are “two dimensions of affirmation:
- First, affirm your mentees as human beings, acknowledging their inherent worth, accepting them without condition.
- Second, affirm them as professionals, persistently calling out their achievements and celebrating them.” Using concrete data to support your affirmations is important, to further highlight that their claims of inadequacy are unfounded.
3. Share your own imposter stories.
Johnson and Smith also advise that managers and mentors should share their experiences of self-doubt with their employees: “Nothing is so uplifting to an imposter than the epiphany of discovering that a respected mentor and role model also has wrestled — and perhaps, continues to wrestle — the dragon of imposter anxiety and managed to endure.”
In terms of addressing inclusivity in the longer-term:
Author, Ruchik Tulshyan, and writer, Jodi-Ann Burey, believe that organisations should be thinking about “why imposter syndrome exists in the first place and what role workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it”. Clinical psychologist, Emily Hu, says that we’re more likely to “experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field”.
Organisations should therefore think about whether their talent management strategy and organization as a whole support a culture of inclusivity, fair career development, and healthy performance management practices.
Perhaps a good starting point for helping foster a more inclusive, supportive culture in the workplace is to start with your team: spending time understanding your people – their strengths, their anxieties, their emotions, and their motivations. It is this genuine desire to connect with your employees and support them on their journey that will help them see their true worth and potential.