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Leadership Styles

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Seven in ten people suffer from imposter syndrome, but admitting to carrying this burden is something business leaders can struggle with

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Imposter syndrome - Key takeaways:

• 70% of people feel imposter syndrome at some point or other during their lifetimes

• Members of minority groups are particularly prone to feeling imposter syndrome

• Men are reluctant to admit to imposter syndrome, due to the cultural pressure of ‘alpha male’ working environments

• Not dealing with it can stop you performing effectively

• A tell-tale sign is assigning career success to good fortune

• The main therapeutic responses are person-centred therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy

• Coaching, training and development can also play a role in treatment

• Organisations in which senior staff are comfortable admitting to vulnerabilities make for a healthier work culture

• Making a conscious effort to ‘own’ your successes can help to overcome imposter syndrome

• Specific feedback on performance helps employees to take ownership of their achievements

Do you sometimes feel like a fraud at work, or worry that you don’t belong in your job? And would you dare risk losing the confidence of your colleagues by blowing the whistle on yourself?

This is the ‘Catch 22’ that keeps imposter syndrome under wraps. Because whether the voice in your head is right or wrong, you might fear that admitting to feeling imposter syndrome risks undermining your leadership credentials, causing you to lose face with your team and damaging your career.

Some 70% of people feel imposter syndrome at some point or other during their lifetimes, according to one study in the Journal of Behavioral Science. But for such a widespread problem, it gets relatively scant attention in executive leadership circles and corporate culture.

“People put up with this inside their heads,” says Sophie Beeley, executive coach at Sophie Beeley Coaching. “Not dealing with it can be paralysing and can stop you performing effectively. It’s particularly concerning because mental health is such a big issue for remote working this year, these feelings can escalate, and thought patterns can become more severe.”

The 2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report defines the problem in these terms: “Imposter Syndrome is a persistent inability to believe one’s success is deserved or achieved by working hard and possessing distinct skills and capabilities but by other means such as luck or being at the right place at the right time. It is often accompanied with feelings of self-doubt, fear of success or failure, or self-sabotage.”

Person-centred therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are the main therapeutic responses, according to Andrew Paterson, an integrative counsellor, psychotherapist and organisation psychologist at Appreciative.

Coaching, training and development can also play a role in treatment, for example through assertiveness training. These do not come from a clinical evidence base, but there is a strong academic evidence base for its origins and treatments.

“CBT is about identifying people’s negative automatic thoughts, and contradicting those by finding evidence to the contrary, in order to change their belief patterns,” says Patterson. “Person centred therapy centres on working with individual insights rather than a model. People make connections in the present to where they might have learnt that in their past.”

Minority report

The KPMG study suggests that although a majority of people are prone to imposter syndrome, those who represent a minority group or background – women leaders in the male-dominated world of insurance executives, for example – are particularly prone to feeling it.

“It’s a common feeling but perhaps under-represented groups have a greater propensity to feel that ‘People like me aren’t supposed to be here’ or that ‘People who look like me aren’t welcome in this group’,” says Katherine Bryant, a consultant, speaker and coach at Progress Partners.

Paterson says he has been working with an executive who recently joined her company’s board, but “felt a fraud” and “that they spoke in another language” because she saw matters from a different perspective, focused on practical steps in the here and now, based on day-to-day reality in the business, rather than concepts, hypotheticals and future planning.

“She called herself an imposter; we did work on that, where it comes from, and how to manage it,” Paterson says. “She’s realised that she’s needed precisely to help them keep their feet on the ground; that her area of competence comes from her grasp of reality. That’s why she deserves to be on the board; she’s realised that’s her purpose and she’s not an imposter.”

Beeley observes some of the indicators in a corporate environment - some of which might just look like diligence or modesty. “People suffering from this tend to keep a lower profile whenever they can, so they won’t speak out as much as they might do. They will also tend to over-prepare for projects,” she says.

“Doubting themselves means they also tend not to understand their own success. An important part of assessing your weaker points is to understand what you’re good at and what you’ve achieved,” adds Beeley.

A closely related tell-tale sign is to assign career success to good fortune, Bryant notes. “People say they were lucky to get a promotion, that they knew somebody, or that they were in the right place at the right time – those are trigger phrases to me,” she says. “The reality is that they were the only person with the right combination of skills and experience, or simply the best qualified person.”

Showing vulnerability

In some ways, men may suffer just as keenly for different reasons, Bryant suggests. Alpha male corporate environments are usually seen to favour men, but they can eschew asking for help.

“Men tend to suffer in silence, under cultural pressure to appear invulnerable as a strong leader, so to articulate the problem is associated with weakness,” she says.

“It would be much better for men’s mental health to create an environment where they can talk about it and to encourage them to show vulnerability.”

Any organisation within which senior staff are comfortable to admit to their own vulnerabilities makes for a healthier work culture, Bryant suggests.

“Senior managers are seldom hired to be the world’s greatest expert on any specific topic. Sometimes not being an expert makes you more accessible, because it can mean people are less intimidated to talk to you or get your help,” she says.

Paterson suggests the example of one US firm that, as part of its management package, puts aside a number of hours each year devoted to counselling, which employees can opt out of or use for other reasons if they prefer.

“That’s quite unusual in the UK,” he says. “It usually takes a crisis to have arisen to involve HR in such things by recommending a counsellor.”

Fighting back

While HR might be able to help, addressing the problem begins with the individual. Mentors can be crucial when somebody feels comfortable opening up, or alternatively seeking out coaching and counselling services.

Who a person thinks they are is usually at the core of the problem, rather than what they know or don’t know in terms of knowledge and skills. Poor self-concept often begins in childhood, Paterson notes. In adulthood it often arises from relationships. Receiving the wrong messages means someone’s self-concept can take a hammering.

Beeley says the first thing is to be aware of the negative thought patterns so that when they happen you can resist them.

“Try to be kind to yourself, because it’s unlikely you’d judge someone else so harshly. Instead, assess your role and your performance rationally, as an outsider might, focusing on real strengths and weaknesses,” she says.

Part of the problem to achieving this is that people who feel imposter syndrome do not internalise their achievements. In response, Bryant advises people to make more conscious efforts to ‘own’ their successes. “Be consciously aware of what you’re telling yourself, be realistic, and acknowledge your own achievements,” she says.

This might be as obvious as keeping a record of previous successes, for example by storing and looking back on emails containing positive feedback on previous projects.

“When you doubt yourself, you need evidence of those times you have achieved goals, to help separate feelings from facts,” Bryant says.

Getting the right kind of feedback can also be crucial. Just telling someone ‘You did a great job’ is often not constructive, she points out, as blanket praise can be misinterpreted, deflected or excused away by someone prone to self-doubt.

“When you get fluffy feedback, it’s easy for someone with imposter syndrome to second-guess it,” says Bryant. “People need specific feedback on performance to take ownership of your achievements. Instead they need specificity to help separate feelings from facts. If you tell them they did something specific very well, they can own it as a skill more easily.”

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