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Why imposter syndrome can be a competitive advantage

September 2, 2019 - 12 min read
man on sofa with computer on lap experiencing imposter syndrome

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Early warning signs of imposter syndrome

What can leaders do to counteract impostor syndrome?

One of the main barriers that prevents leaders from reaching their full potential isn’t missing the right skill set. Nor is it experience or training. The biggest roadblock? It’s a lack of self-confidence.

Take for instance George, a high-achieving new manager at a technology company. George graduated at the top of his class. He was recently promoted and now oversees a team of five other developers. Despite his achievements and obvious aptitude, George worries that he’s not knowledgeable enough to lead effectively.

Then there’s Maria, an accomplished executive who has a hard time starting projects, especially when they are for the Senior Leadership team. At the root of her procrastination problem is a concern that any tiny mistake will expose her as the fraud she believes she is.

What’s going on here? Why are high-potential employees afraid to step into the spotlight?

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These fears are the hallmarks of impostor syndrome, a phenomenon wherein successful people doubt their competence. 

Even though the term has recently caught on in leadership circles, impostor syndrome was first described in the late 70s by researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes to refer to a pattern of inadequacy observed among female graduate students. Despite objective signs of success, these women reported feelings of “intellectual phoniness,” as if they “lucked out,” or tricked someone into believing they were smart and qualified. Studies have found that over 70% of people will report experiencing impostor syndrome at some point in their careers.

In today’s fast-paced workplace, it’s hard not to feel inadequate at times when there’s always something new to learn or a new skill set to master. Digital technology and social media also make it easier than ever before to compare our success to others’, perpetuating a cycle of self-doubt. It’s understandable then, why impostor syndrome has been dubbed the “workplace anxiety du jour.”

While impostor syndrome does come with its fair share of difficulties, it’s a sign that you have a team of highly intelligent, driven individuals. Here’s how to spot signs of impostor syndrome, along with what you can do to counteract it.

back of woman's head nervous with imposter sydrome

Early warning signs of imposter syndrome

If you want a team of high-performers, then this is a problem your organization will have to face.

Impostor syndrome can manifest in the workplace as:

  • An inability to internalize achievements and downplaying accomplishments
  • A fear of being “found out” or being exposed as inexperienced or untalented
  • Avoidance of feedback
  • A reluctance to ask for help
  • Turning down new opportunities
  • Second guessing decisions
  • Overworking to the point of burnout to prove you’re “enough”
  • Failing to start or finish projects  

In the thirty years since Clance and Imes’ initial research, additional studies have shown that impostor syndrome is incredibly common. In fact, in a 2014 study, impostor syndrome was found to be the top fear of executives worldwide, with 60% saying it negatively impacted their ability to lead confidently. Even the world’s most brilliant thinkers confess to feeling like frauds sometimes.

Even the world’s most brilliant thinkers confess to feeling like frauds sometimes.

While impostor syndrome shows up consistently across genders and ages, it’s exacerbated by workplaces that:

Impostor syndrome can have far-reaching consequences for organizations. When high-potential individuals hold back out of fear, it can limit your leadership pipeline, or worse, produce underperforming teams.

If you want a team of high-performers, then this is a problem your organization will have to face. After all, feelings of self-doubt are a natural consequence of success. Insecurities pop up in response to new experiences or challenges, say when someone is promoted, hits a major milestone, or nails a big project. This only gets more intense as people rise to new levels of success. In the words of Aristotle, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

The problem is that people who struggle with impostor syndrome have distorted, negative self-perceptions which can affect their productivity and performance. As a leader, you can play an important role in normalizing these secret thoughts — bringing them out from a place of shame — in order to create a more positive, inclusive, and collaborative culture.

woman smiling at desk overcoming imposter syndrome

What can leaders do to counteract impostor syndrome?

Foster psychological safety

Ending the silence around impostor syndrome starts with you. Have open discussions about how self-doubt accompanies success. This helps normalize the fact that fears come with taking risks and innovating, creating psychological safety.

Mike McDerment, CEO of Freshbooks, points out that strong leaders use impostor syndrome as a competitive advantage. Admitting you don’t have all answers doesn’t make you a fraud. On the contrary, it helps you define and solve problems more efficiently, creatively, and collaboratively.

Show what it means to work like a human

Impostor syndrome is associated with behaviors like perfectionism and overworking. Sure, it’s great to have high standards and be detailed oriented, but no one wins when team members burn out.

The most effective leaders understand that good mental and physical health are key to performance and they empower their teams to tend to their well-being, too. Employees need to feel that they are valued as whole people with unique talents and goals, which is why empathy is a prime attribute of successful leaders. Teams thrive when individuals feel understood, validated, and connected to one another. This Whole Person perspective has been shown to drive innovation, employee engagement, and business results, but also the psychological resources that sustain high performing leaders over time.

Shift away from the all-work-no-play paradigm by modeling effective stress management and self-compassion. Instead of planning back-to-back meetings, for example, build in breaks so that everyone has time to decompress. Take vacations. Acknowledge you can’t do it all, and that’s okay. Delegate more instead of being the rugged individualist who goes at it alone.

Recognize people’s accomplishments

Instead of praising a team member’s intelligence or talent, reinforce the processes they used. Research by psychologist Carol Dweck shows that praising effort (“You worked really hard on this”) instead of focusing solely on achievement is the best way to stroke a strong sense of self-esteem that keeps impostor syndrome from creeping in.

Celebrating incremental progress not only keeps morale high, but it also helps people internalize success. I have each of my clients create a brag file — a document where they keep a log of their wins at work, no matter how big or small. This helps them look back on their accomplishments with a healthy sense of pride, rather than diminishing them as the result of luck or connections. It even comes in handy at performance review time to help the person prepare to feel ownership over their responsibilities.

Utilize feedback for development

Use tools like 360 assessments and retrospectives to unearth opportunities for learning and development in a growth-oriented way. Empowering teams through the use of feedback makes sure expectations are understood, which helps reduce unnecessary self-doubt among individual contributors.

Susan Tardanico, executive-in-residence at the Center For Creative Leadership says“It takes emotional honesty, introspection, and feedback from others to achieve the self-awareness and self-acceptance needed to combat impostor syndrome.” Support your team in taking an inventory of their strengths, perhaps with the assistance of a coach, who can help them leverage their strengths fully. A good coach will help pull out unique attributes that make a person shine in their work and support them in taking consistent action to develop habits that help them succeed to their full potential.

Because identifying opportunities for development can introduce self-doubt, BetterUp Coach Laurenne Di Salvo walks her members through the four stages of learning a new skill, known as the Conscious Competence Ladder. It’s important to realize that undertaking a challenge or assuming a new responsibility can be a vulnerable experience, so encourage others to approach it with a healthy dose of self-compassion.

Approaching development as a series of low-stakes experiments can also help. Confidence is a learned skill, after all, so adding playfulness to the process helps develop resiliency so that everyone can bounce back a little easier when setback inevitably occur.

Create a culture of inclusion

You need to create a space for candid conversations where people feel comfortable speaking up without fear of being attacked as incompetent. To foster a climate of inclusion, start by setting communication ground rules such as:

  • No interruptions
  • Giving everyone equal time to speak
  • Acknowledging not only mistakes, but wins and opportunities to develop

Everyone can benefit from the support of a coach on their professional path, but this type of support is especially important for underrepresented groups. Mentoring, sponsorships, and diversity training can help reduce the negative effects of unconscious bias and feeling like an outsider.

With some effort, it’s possible to keep impostor syndrome from hurting high-potentials’ self-confidence, especially if you take charge to lead from a place of vulnerability and model resilience.

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Published September 2, 2019

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