Impostor Syndrome is an experience most of us have grappled with at one time or another, one that both distracts us and stifles our ability to put our best foot forward at work. Could there be a way to reframe this experience in a manner that allows us to take back control? To help us address this question, we called in a good friend of the firm, Stephanie Blair, an executive coach and consultant focused on grooming and growing innovative talent within sales-centric teams through her strategic advisory firm, Know & Flourish. Read on for her take on how we can identify and harness our awareness of our own Impostor Syndrome to take actionable steps through and forward:
I can’t remember when I officially learned about Imposter Syndrome –it wasn’t discussed in home economics, in my business classes or during any employee training programs I participated in– however, I can remember several points of my life where I experienced it:
As a freshman starter on my high school’s varsity soccer team, thinking, “do I belong here? Surely they made a mistake! I’ve only been playing for a few years”
When relocating with my husband to London at the age of 28 to proudly and enthusiastically build and run my firm’s European HQ, only to realize the challenges associated with running a world region and managing people older than me
As a newly promoted manager and a new mom, which for me came at once - yes, you can get promoted while on maternity leave! - I returned to work struggling at times to navigate a new normal
As an executive coach and consultant with my strategic advisory firm Know & Flourish I now know Imposter Syndrome is one of the most common obstacles faced by women in the workplace, yet the topic is rarely discussed in an actionable way. A myriad of self-help articles and books on this topic tell us that women should “step fully into our power” to overcome it or “find the confidence we wish we had” to move forward. As a self-proclaimed woman of action, I never really found this type of guidance to be helpful. How are we supposed to simply imagine our way out of this very real, oftentimes crippling fear? I’m here to share what Imposter Syndrome is, the assorted ways it can manifest, and how can we more effectively use our awareness of this feeling to our advantage.
Imposter Syndrome is widely understood to be the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved and legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. Two female psychologists, Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, first coined the term as “Imposter Phenomenon” in 1978. They were looking for a better explanation of why high performing women would often attribute their success to luck instead of accomplishment. Imposter Syndrome is now considered something that anyone can face, no matter how you personally identify, but people of color and women most commonly experience it.
It’s important to understand where Impostor Syndrome comes from. I favor the Muse’s take on the different (unattainable) imagined selves we strive to be and how they lead us straight into the mouth of the beast known as Impostor Syndrome. Of the types outlined (soloist, perfectionist, superwomen, natural genius, expert) I regularly see perfectionist and soloist tendencies holding leaders - specifically women - back from progressing in the workplace.
Perfectionists are what the word suggests. They set their personal standards of success higher than most, which one might argue is a good thing. However, they often will experience shame and unnecessary doubt if they fall short of reaching these goals. When a manager experiences this, it can result in micromanaging, creating an uncomfortable and unproductive ripple effect across the team.
As for soloists, you can think of them as the lone wolf, and someone who feels that asking for help will expose them as incapable or phony in a major way. Instead of recognizing that we all can use a hand from time to time, soloists will go to the extreme to prove they don’t need anyone’s help. Think of it as you would your most stubborn friend. This can be especially challenging for new managers who may deny that anything needs to be outsourced, doing everything in their power to fix situations themselves, with varying results.
Both perfectionist and soloist tendencies take us down a road we’re better off staying away from. They create a cycle of self-doubt that leads to regular feelings of inadequacy, which manifests as Imposter Syndrome. This shame spiral keeps us from moving forward, overtaking our voice of reason, desperately trying to keep us from our next opportunity to succeed.
When we think about the “always on” nature of our current work environments and the over-emphasis on performance, it’s no wonder Imposter Syndrome exists at the scale we are seeing it. According to a 2011 study put out by the Behavioral Science Research Institute, approximately 70% of people will experience at least one episode of Imposter Syndrome in their lives.
If we fail to properly address this overwhelmingly ubiquitous experience, these cycles will continue to repeat, creating toxic work cultures, stalled business results, and burnt-out employees. So instead, we must all admit this is real and ask ourselves: how do we leverage what we know to be true about Imposter Syndrome and make it a driver of positive change for ourselves and others? Here are a few places to start:
Own your story – accept that perfection is an improbable fantasy; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and our awareness of both is crucial to success and continual improvement. Identifying our imperfections without beating ourselves down enables us to then commit to developing our competencies in these areas.
So, use the resources given to you to tackle those areas for improvement, ask for help, but then build and own your narrative. Reflect on and highlight how you are applying these new skills or driving better business results now that you learned something new or tried a different approach. Remember to acknowledge which colleagues helped you reach your new level! We rarely do these things alone.
Find an accountability partner who has similar tendencies or who you are comfortable candidly discussing your Imposter Syndrome with and turn to them when needed. That person will be able to remind you that they spoke up or asked for help or tried something new – and made it to the other side as a stronger leader, team member, and person – so surely you can too. You can develop an action plan together and celebrate the momentum you’re creating to overcome it.
Coach to the whole person, not just the employee, and create regular opportunities for check-ins and honest conversations. Saving it all for the annual review is counter-intuitive and unproductive. Some ideas include taking 1-1s in quieter settings so a team member can speak openly about their challenges or setting up a quarterly career development conversations where you ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions about situations holding them back, their 3-5-10 year plans and areas in which they’d like to improve. They key is to provide opportunities for team members to take on new challenges or ask for help more than once a year.
As with most things, overcoming Imposter Syndrome starts with awareness. So next time you feel it creeping in, acknowledge it, learn from it, and take one of the steps outlined here, choosing to move forward. Push yourself slightly further beyond where you thought you could go. Find comfort in being uncomfortable. Tell yourself that you will not know all the answers but remind yourself that no one does. Instead, choose to have faith in your abilities and the experiences and relationships that got you to where you are so far. Isn’t this a much more productive talk track?
Through her work with Know & Flourish, Stephanie helps modern workplaces and their high-achieving leaders to develop communication, collaboration and leadership strategies and empower employees across levels in today’s rapidly transforming corporate climate. To learn more about Stephanie and her work, reach out to her at Stephanie@knowandflourish.com or on LinkedIn.
Stay tuned for more guest posts from our Industry Insiders series!