[There are other articles in this confidence series. Go to this page if you’d like to start from the first one]
Whether you like it or not, as a leader you are a crucial in how someone feels about themselves and their work. This is especially true when you manage someone who feels like an imposter. And given how common this experience is, you likely have a person who feels like this on your team.
A great deal has been written about the imposter experience, but it can be hard to fish out valuable insights in the sea of inaccuracies.
I’m finding that best, most transformative work happens when our inner work as individuals is supported by the system around us. This article is my attempt to equip those in the system (managers, friends, colleagues) with insights that can help them be their supportive best.
It’s the summary of 5 key learnings that come up often that I’d like to share to inspire you to think about the imposter experience from a fresh perspective.
Disclaimer: these are subjective learnings, opinions and perspectives based on the work I do in my coaching practice, which you might disagree with.
But first, what is the imposter experience (commonly known as imposter syndrome)?
It’s a feeling of internal fraudulence that persists despite verifiable achievements. It’s that very subjective feeling of not being as good, smart, talented as others think – even if all evidence around might indicate otherwise.
It often appears when we’ve outgrown expectations that we feel were placed upon us – by our family, education system, society.
Onto the learnings...
1. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not only about women.
While the imposter syndrome is often associated with women, it affects both men and women equally. The experience in my coaching practice confirms that too - approximately half of clients who decide to work with me as their coach to overcome feelings of inadequacy and fulfil their potential are men.
What is interesting, and perhaps puzzling, is that popular narrative doesn’t seem to recognise that at all. If you run a Google search about it, it seems to be all about women.
I often get asked about my thoughts on the commencement speech that Reshma Saujani, a gender equality activist and author, gave at Smith College. She claimed in it that imposter syndrome is a manufactured concept invented to hold women back.
I appreciate the intention behind her message which I see as an invitation to not give in to narratives that hold us back. But the speech implies that our imposter experience is a direct result of gender inequality.
It’s true that it’s part of the equation, but inequality is not only about gender. It’s also about race, age, religious beliefs, education, learning differences, ability, sexual orientation and so many others. We talk about women in male-dominated organisations, but there are other ways to feel different that may be at the root of our imposter feelings.
To name a few: being a non-drinking Muslim at a wine-heavy Christmas party, a dyslexic person writing an important report under pressure, the only parent in a team, a person suffering from an illness, a person with ADHD required to adhere to a stationary 9-to-5 routine. All of them are gender agnostic challenges. We need more conversation and consideration of systemic reasons why certain groups of people are most susceptible, this is not only about women.
Another dimension is our inner world and what we believe about ourselves.
A lot of it will have been shaped by society - spaces and people that made us who we are today. Our family, culture, education. Yet our inner world may not be directly responding to the outer world. Many of our beliefs, especially those that come from the past, may be running in the background like an outdated operating system.
This can be about criticism we received that becomes part our inner critic’s agenda.
Maybe a mistake earlier in our careers that makes us extra cautious in roles we go into later.
Or a feeling of not belonging we experienced as children that follows us well into adulthood.
Here is why this matters: I’ve worked with clients, male and female, who had all the support and validation they could dream of, yet they still went to bed at night worried they were not good enough and woke up fearful that this would be the day they get found out. The emotional cost of this can be very high.
Ideas for your leadership
Remember that every person will have a different relationship with confidence, irrespective of their gender.
Deep down, a person experiencing imposter feelings is asking themselves: “Do I belong here? Is my contribution valued? Am I good enough when I am myself?”. You might not be able to change their belief system, but a good starting point is to build a culture where people know where they stand – good work is recognised, feedback is regular, constructive, and timely. Nothing that is said at a yearly performance review meeting should be a surprise.
2. Don’t call it a syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is a very unfortunate name.
Here is why. The way it is talked about could easily make us think it’s a medical condition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As an experiment, I tried googling it today and after typing “imposter syndrome” one of Google’s top suggestions of how to finish my search term was “imposter syndrome symptoms NHS”. For those not in the UK, NHS is the National Health service here – it’s where you go for all your medical needs.
This really goes to say how misunderstood this is. There is nothing medical about it, there is nothing wrong with us from a psychological point of view. It’s an experience that occurs at certain points of time, an internal feeling of fraudulence despite evidence that we are competent.
Interestingly, when Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified it in the 1970s they called it the “impostor phenomenon”, which I like much more because it doesn't pathologise it, it implies that it’s an experience.
I regularly question whether I should keep using this term or has it now been "cancelled". The reason I still do is that it has become an acceptable way for many of my clients to name their self-doubt and emotional experience of work. I keep being chosen as a coach because of the knowledge I have in this area.
Ideas for your leadership
It's worth being mindful of the language that we use to talk about it.
Don’t tell your people they have imposter syndrome. Imposter phenomenon might have become a way of talking about confidence that is accepted in the workplace, but it’s a very personal experience. Ask open questions instead of diagnosing.
Here are a few great ones:
What is it like to be part of this team for you?
If there was one area where you’d like to grow your confidence, what would it be?
How can I help you do your best work here?
3. Each person experiences it differently.
Leaders I work with often ask me how can they recognise it in others, or spot the signs.
It can be hard to do for a few reasons.
First, it might look and feel differently for different people. For some, it’s there all the time, for others it only shows up in certain situations. The intensity may also vary - from mild stress to intense anxiety and fear of being found out.
Second, the person feeling like an imposter will work hard to not be found out.
Here are a few ways in which it may show up:
· Going under the radar or keeping a low profile.
· Avoiding risk, being uncomfortable with change.
· Over-preparation / perfectionism.
· Procrastination – either not finishing tasks and / or last-minute deadline rush.
· People pleasing, avoiding challenging conversations.
· Being overly dependent on praise or affected by criticism.
However, we will never know for sure. The only way to have conversations and ask open questions.
Ideas for your leadership
Each person is different. Meaningful 1-to-1s are a great way to understand members of your team, build trust and learn about how you can be a great leader for them. Go beyond work agenda and focus on cultivating a relationship. Build trust by asking open ended questions. Listen without mentally preparing a response or a solution while they’re talking.
3. Imposter experience can lead to burnout.
A person feeling like an imposter will experience additional levels of stress and anxiety that can lead to burnout over time. Imagine – there may be people on your team that are perfectly capable but feel like they’re ‘faking it’. This can also be true for your highest performers.
What leaders are often surprised to find out is that the imposter experience is very common in high performance environments – academia, consultancy, law firms and many others.
Why? Because expectations of exceptionally high performance, being judged a lot and being surrounded by many other exceptionally smart people can be fertile ground for imposter feelings.
This comes at a high cost. First, prolonged anxiety is very taxing to our nervous system. But also, a person feeling like a fraud might spend long hours over-preparing and perfecting every detail. They might work weekends to make up for where they see themselves lacking. They may feel like they need to keep working extra hard to be accepted, even when there is no objective need for them to do so.
Over time, this can lead to feeling psychologically and emotionally burnt out, but may also affect your team member’s energy to apply for promotions, taking on new challenges or stretch assignments.
Ideas for your leadership
Avoid the perfectionism trap by helping people set the bar at the right level. Be clear on success criteria and get agreement on when the result is good enough to accept it and move on. Engage in critical reflection on how workload is distributed in the team – those high performing superstars might be your go to people for new assignments, which could actually hurt them, especially if they find it hard to say no or set boundaries.
5. Normalise it by sharing your imposter stories.
Many great leaders have gone through feeling like an imposter at some stage. Have you? Maybe you’ve overcome it, learnt to challenge that critical voice, or realised that it’s a common experience we all share at different points in our lives.
One of the most impactful things you can do for your people is to share those stories.
This is often the most controversial topic in conversations I have with leaders and managers, one that clearly divides the audience. Some feel that leaders need to show up strong and decisive, and that admittance of self-doubt can do more harm than good. Others shared powerful stories when a leader they respected owned up to being human too.
As leaders, we can carry this false expectation that we need to be strong, infallible, and able to do it all. The idea of admitting to our moments of vulnerability can feel uncomfortable and perhaps trigger our own imposter thoughts.
But when you show you are vulnerable, it creates trust with your team and removes the pressure to have all the answers.
Ideas for your leadership
Share your moments of self-doubt with the team. This is not about oversharing - you don’t need to spill everything for your vulnerability to have great impact. Admit it when you don’t know. If you’re worried about fuelling the team’s anxiety in uncertain times, choose stories from your past that come with wisdom and learnings that are relevant for them (“sharing from your scars rather than open wounds”).
I hope it inspires you to stay more aware of this phenomenon in your team – seemingly small mindset adjustments and conversations can make a lot of difference.
These ideas for action can help you build a great foundation not only when it comes to managing the imposter experience but will help you be a great leader of people overall. At its heart it’s about getting to know them, adapting your style, building psychological safety, actively embracing inclusivity and building mutual trust.
Curious to learn more?
I support my clients through 1-to-1 coaching sessions and / or workshops on understanding the inner critic and the imposter experience.
If you like the idea of working with a coach or inviting me to talk to your team, please email me at email@example.com