Combating Imposter Syndrome as an Executive Leader
Have you ever felt like a fraud or a phony? Have you felt as if you don’t belong? Do you feel as if you have lucked into a job, promotion, or opportunity that you don’t deserve? Have you felt like the ‘token’ or ‘quota’ hire in a role? Do you believe that if you can do something, then anybody must be able do it too? Is there self-doubt in the back of your mind for every decision you make? Do you feel like you have people fooled and worry about being ‘found out’?
If any of these questions ring true, don’t worry – you are not alone. Millions of people, from CEOs and billionaire entrepreneurs to best-selling authors and award-winning actors, have experienced these same concerns, secretly believing that they are not as qualified, capable, or skilled as everyone ‘thinks’. Tom Hanks, Julie Andrews, Ryan Reynolds, Michelle Obama, Don Cheadle, Sheryl Sandberg, John Steinbeck, Jennifer Lopez, Mike Myers, Meryl Streep, Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, Chuck Lorre, Serena Williams, Agatha Christie, Sonia Sotomayor, Neil Gaiman, Tina Fey… at one point or another, each of these individuals has expressed self-doubt in their achievements. The name for this condition is ‘imposter syndrome’, and according to Time, it impacts an estimated 70% of people at some time in their life.
What is imposter syndrome?
‘Imposter syndrome’ is a term coined in 1978 by American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It refers to the idea that you have only succeeded due to luck and not because of your skills, talent, experience, capabilities, qualifications, or intelligence and despite high evidence of achievement. Clinical symptoms of the imposter experience include anxiety, stress, depression, and psychological distress. Imposter syndrome can manifest itself in lack of self-confidence, feelings of self-doubt, fear of success or failure, and self-sabotage.
How does imposter syndrome impact leaders?
Imposter syndrome is quite common among high-performing individuals, despite evidence of external validation for their accomplishments. This could include academic achievements through degrees earned or formal recognition through professional excellence. In fact, imposter syndrome is increasingly experienced the more successful you become. Typically, it is triggered by a milestone that involves an achievement or opportunity, such as degree completion, a new job, or a promotion. Feeling the pressure to be successful, imposter syndrome is actually a top fear of executives worldwide.
Individuals who suffer from imposter syndrome are still capable of doing their job well – they just don’t believe in themselves. This self-doubt can impair both your career and personal growth. You may downplay or discredit your achievements, reject new opportunities, second-guess your decisions, avoid feedback or be afraid to ask for help, burn yourself out in efforts to prove yourself, hold yourself to unrealistically high standards. These actions have no merit but could be detrimental to the success you have worked so hard for. Two-thirds of executives even say that imposter syndrome has negatively impacted their ability to lead confidently.
While first time leaders are particularly susceptible to feeling like phonies, imposter syndrome also has an out-sized impact on women and minorities. A recent KPMG report asserts, “Gender roles and stereotypes have a significant impact on a woman’s sense of belonging in a workplace, which can lead to experiencing imposter syndrome in some women leaders.” A corresponding study found that 74% of executive women believe their male counterparts do not experience as much self-doubt as female leaders. Further, 8 out of 10 executive women believe they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men do. Many of the women surveyed said that they never expected to reach the level of success that they achieved. They also indicated that they experienced loneliness and isolation from entering new peer groups with less diversity. Limited minority representation at senior levels is a strong contributor to these self-limiting beliefs.
What are ways to overcome imposter syndrome?
Time suggests, “The only difference between someone who experiences imposter syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges – people who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us.”
The tips outlined below can help you effectively manage those feelings of insecurity.
- Take inventory. Make a list of your strengths, achievements, skills, and capabilities. Focus on what’s going well. And don’t diminish your accomplishments – you put in the work and got to where you are for a reason. Continue to track your successes and document your wins. When the seeds of self-doubt begin to sprout, refer back to your list.
- Join a professional network. A professional network provides a supportive community of peers facing the same dilemmas or undergoing the same challenges as yourself. These fellow leaders and executives can provide feedback, suggestions, or even just reassurance.
- Find a mentor. Talk to a trusted advisor who you admire, has been in your shoes, and can offer an objective point of view. How did they manage their own feelings of being an imposter? How did they prevent burn-out? What lessons did they learn along the way?
- Create a culture of inclusion. As a leader, you are in a role where you can impact the company’s culture. Create a space where people can have candid conversations, express differing opinions or viewpoints, feel comfortable speaking openly, ask for feedback or help, and feel valued and appreciated for their hard work.
- Embrace discomfort. Holding an executive position will likely push you out of your comfort zone. In this role, you will face new challenges and responsibilities that you may feel unprepared or unqualified for. But embracing those opportunities will enable you to grow both personally and professionally and open the doors to reaching further success.
Despite your achievements, your imposter syndrome may never fully disappear, and self-doubt may ebb and flow throughout your career. Learning to recognize the signs, proactively taking the steps to minimize the impacts, and fully embracing those new opportunities will enable you to continue to see success and be an effective leader.
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