Leading Fearlessly: Isn’t it about time to challenge imposter syndrome?
By Suzanna de Baca, president and CEO, Business Publications Corp.
Not long ago, a friend who is the president of a large financial institution confessed to me that despite her education and success, for most of her career she has felt like a phony. It was only relatively recently that she realized this feeling was quite common, especially among women and people from traditionally marginalized communities like herself, and that the feeling had a name: imposter syndrome.
According to the Harvard Business Review, imposter syndrome is “loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.” The article says it disproportionately affects high-achievers who struggle to feel successful despite significant accomplishments. A recent KPMG study finds 75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers.
A Forbes article on the topic cites research that indicates while imposter syndrome affects both men and women, it manifests differently, with men underperforming or avoiding challenges, while women feel even more pressured to prove their worth and still experience anxiety and stress even when succeeding.
Originally called “imposter phenomenon,” this experience was identified in a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. The study focused on high-achieving women; it was done before the effects of systemic racism, sexism, classism or other biases were more commonly discussed in the workplace, and according to the Harvard Business Review article, “put the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests.”
In her recent commencement address to Smith College, Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani pointed out that over time, the word “syndrome” was substituted for “phenomenon,” further pathologizing women and underrepresented groups. By directing our view toward fixing the people who experience this feeling rather than addressing the places it happens, we avoid looking at systems that create the feelings of inadequacy in the first place.
People like my friend the bank president have long thought there was something wrong with them, versus embracing their competence and success in spite of workplaces that are not always equitable. It’s time we challenge imposter syndrome, recognizing we are good enough and do belong, and continue working on addressing systems and cultures.
I asked several leaders to share their own experiences with imposter syndrome, why it is so damaging in today’s workplace, and what we can do to address it.
After many years of applying for people leader roles in Des Moines only to be told no or not yet, I was offered a director-level position on the East Coast with the option to work remotely. The moment I accepted this position to lead an HR/talent development team, I was happy, shocked and scared of failing. After all, why would an employer on the East Coast see potential in me where others locally had not seen? Was my accent too strong? Was I not tall enough? Not the right skin color? These were elements of self-doubt that manifested within me.
After numerous years of flying back and forth to Des Moines, I was often asked by the person sitting next to me, “You are not from Des Moines, right?” It was during one of those flights that I decided it was time to stop “flying away.” I needed to go back to working locally and allow others like me to see that there were opportunities in Des Moines.
Impostor syndrome is a huge problem for individuals, but it’s also a major obstacle for organizations. When employees have self-limiting beliefs, it negatively impacts the internal talent pool. That’s why organizations need to create safe spaces where authentic and respectful conversations are embraced.
I think one of the best ways to overcome impostor syndrome is to spend time with yourself and appreciate who you are. When we feel good about ourselves and our abilities, it’s easier for us to help others succeed.
Today’s workforce is the most diverse it’s ever been, with projections of continued growth into 2050 and beyond. As these individuals continue to progress in their careers, they and their leaders will judge their success based on criteria often established by cultural norms rooted in bias. If an individual is subjected to bias multiple times, it causes that individual to wrestle with thoughts of questioning their expertise and authority, what’s acceptable from them, what’s caused them to not reach their intended goals or opportunities. This is a breeding ground for imposter syndrome and unfortunately home to many women and people of color working to excel in the workplace.
Today’s workplace is now a space where women and Black and brown folks make up more of the workforce but not executive leadership – a world where five of the nine members of the Supreme Court of the United States are a protected class but ruled against affirmative action. Our country has had our first Black president and vice president but citizenship is challenged, a world in which we’ve awoken to inequities in systems and corporate commitments to equity and inclusion. These may not be everyone’s priorities but it’s our reality.
Imposter syndrome is damaging in today’s workplace because undoubtedly we know better, but our “do better” has yet to catch up. We have more diversity (recruitment) but less inclusion (retention) and rarely equity (access to success).
Overcoming imposter syndrome demands adjustments of the individual combating limiting thoughts and creating an environment or system where a diversity of racial, ethnic and gender identities are viewed as just as professional as the current model – providing access to success for everyone.
Imposter syndrome is more prevalent than most people realize. Over the course of my career, I have experienced it several times, across all levels. I often find myself categorized as a high achiever, and that can create challenges with perfectionism. There have been times when I created unrealistic goals, and when failing to reach them, found it confirmed my suspicion that I was not good enough.
Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you aren’t good at your job. However, these feelings are often based on fear and not reality. I find it helpful to spend some time focusing on the facts or data. And in my role as a leader, I try to have transparent and open conversations with my team about what it takes to meet expectations in our organization. Making this a regular part of our ongoing dialogue helps me and my team establish realistic expectations and assessments of our performance.
Imposter syndrome not only impacts the individual experiencing it but also the employing organization. The effects can be noticeable in many ways, including employee burnout, increased stress, personal health concerns and lost productivity ― which negatively affect key performance indicators. As a leader in the health care industry, I especially worry about employee burnout and the ability for organizations to remain staffed to support the much-needed role of delivering best-in-class patient care.
Imposter syndrome can come from a poor internal environment and surrounding yourself with individuals who have a “lack mindset.” People I’ve met in life both personally and professionally have made me feel like I am not qualified enough to do my job, raise capital or run a tech company by their words and actions. So I’ve chosen to make sure I would never make anyone feel this way and instead illuminate a path where they can succeed and crush their doubts.
Imposter syndrome holds us back from our greatness. If we think we don’t deserve a seat at the table or aren’t qualified for an opportunity in front of us, I fear individuals and companies will become stagnant. Approaching work and life with a mindset of “I don’t know this, but I’ll figure it out” or “I’ve never done this, but I have the right experience and confidence to execute” has a powerful ripple effect. I’ve found that hyping up my team around the “unknowns” creates a culture of curiosity and risk-taking, which leaves little room for feeling like an imposter.
“I can do it” very quickly moves toward “Can I do it?” for many of us who have experienced imposter syndrome. The damage this can cause to our confidence, leadership presence and taking a seat at the table while working in a new role, building trust with our team and driving for impact is real.
Over my 20-year career, imposter syndrome crept in at every promotion and gave me hesitation on my abilities to do the job I was promoted to. Think about that – they picked me to do the job and I’m still questioning myself. For me, navigating my imposter syndrome was about support from trusted mentors, coaches and colleagues. Every successful endeavor increased my confidence to do the job. I also recommend we all take a step back and ask ourselves, “How long did it take me to be 100% effective and confident in my previous role?” This question can support us to set realistic expectations for our new role and give us the grace to pause, take one day at a time and chip away at our inner imposter dialogue.
Leading is hard. Leading while also taming our imposter syndrome is harder. Instead let’s use our imposter syndrome as an inner gauge to fuel us to ask more questions and keep us humble as we learn and flourish in our new roles.