Background

At the Leading Figures webinar held on 9 June on the topic of developing as a leader, the issue of imposter syndrome arose.  It seemed as though many in the audience were surprised that apparently successful and confident leaders would ever suffer from imposter syndrome.  Others attendees shared that they had experienced this feeling themselves, were glad to have a name to put to it and pleased that it was more common than they realised.  We therefore decided to devote a webinar to discussing this topic and to hear from a range of leaders about their experience of imposter syndrome and what they do to reduce its impact on their performance. 

In this note, we look to define imposter syndrome, explore why and how it arises and to consider some coping strategies.  We look forward to exploring this subject in more detail at our webinar on 10 September. 

Definition

‘Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success’ (HBR article by Gill Corkindale, May 2008).  Sufferers feel that, at any moment, they are going to be found out as a fraud. Research suggests that as many as 70% of people suffer from it and that it often affects high achieving, highly successful people.  It doesn’t necessarily equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.  Early research by Clance and Imes linked it with perfectionism, especially in high-achieving women and interestingly, the majority of academics looking at this topic appear to be women.  However, more recent research by Clance and others suggests that it occurs just as often in men and can be even more problematic for men who may be fearful of sharing their feelings of self-doubt with others. 

Dr Valerie Young identified five types of people who can suffer from imposter syndrome:

  • “Perfectionists” – people who set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they will still feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence. 
  • “Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for ways to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job unless they meet all the criteria in the job description and they will avoid asking questions or speaking up at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.
  • When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.  Individuals who have always succeeded academically may be particularly prone to this. 
  • “Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.
  • “Supermen” or “superwomen” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.


What causes Imposter Syndrome

Some research (Clance and Imes, 1978) suggests imposter syndrome comes from labelling by parents (‘the intelligent one’, ‘the sensitive one’ etc) or messaging by parents about what success looks like.  Some children may feel that, unless they succeed, irrespective of effort or the strategies they employed, they won’t be loved and may feel that they are never good enough for their parents.  Dr Carol Dweck (2017) explains how failure can shift from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure) which undermines the willingness to take risks and develop a growth mindset. 

Clance and Imes also suggested a link with psychological traits including neuroticism and anxiety, while other researchers suggest a link with feeling as though you belong.  Belonging and inclusion can help people to feel safe and more confident and less prone to imposter syndrome.  

Cuncic suggests that entering a new role can trigger imposter syndrome, for example starting at university or in a new job.  Again, this suggests a link to belonging and inclusion.  In a new situation, individuals may lack the networks and social capital that allows them to feel as though they belong and are in a safe environment. 

How does it manifest itself?

Common thoughts or feelings include: ‘I must not fail’, ‘I feel like a fraud’, ‘It’s all down to luck’ or ‘Success is no big deal’.  People suffering from imposter syndrome can’t enjoy their success, will be afraid of being found out or failing next time and can downplay success.  It can mean that individuals don’t put themselves forward for new challenges, don’t speak up in meetings or ask questions, avoid situations where they might experience feeling inadequate and find it difficult to accept praise. 

Arlin Cuncic (2020) suggests asking yourself a number of questions to see if you have imposter syndrome:

  • Do you agonise over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work?
  • Do you attribute your success to luck or outside factors?
  • Are you very sensitive to even constructive criticism?
  • Do you feel like you will inevitably be found out as a phony?
  • Do you downplay your own expertise, even in areas where you are genuinely more skilled than others?


Does it matter?

Imposter syndrome can be motivating, encouraging people to try hard and achieve.  However, it can also lead to constant anxiety and act as a barrier to success. 

Imposter syndrome can stop individuals from putting themselves forward for new opportunities.  This can mean that they don’t fulfil their potential and their organisations miss out as well.  It can lead to procrastination – an inability to get something finished and open to criticism.  It can lead to work-alcoholism – enough is never enough, over-preparation and self-sabotage.  None of this is helpful for the individual or the organisations they work for. 

Cuddy (2016) writes that ‘impostorism’ causes us to self-criticise constantly, to “choke at the worst possible moments, [and to] disengage — thereby virtually ensuring that we will underperform at the very things we do best and love most.”  In other words, the fear of failure can lead to failure in practice.

What can you do about it?

There appear to be a number of things that the individual can do to help manage their imposter syndrome.  The first is recognising when they are feeling this way.  By recognising imposter syndrome when it arises, they can use strategies to alleviate it.

The second is to reframe how they are thinking about things.  For example, asking themselves for evidence that they are going to fail or have failed in similar situations in the past.  Focusing on past successes and positive feedback can help to challenge negativity.   Fredrickson (2011) suggests disputing negative thinking by focusing on the facts. 

Other suggestions include talking about your feelings which can help others who are similarly affected, being kind to yourself –  recognising that it’s ok to make mistakes, seeking support from others including mentors or coaches, focusing on the end goal and seeing challenges or mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than to be found out (having a growth mindset).  Stopping comparing yourself to others can also be helpful. 

And managers can help.  If they see imposter syndrome manifesting in other people, they can raise it in an off-hand way to normalise the feelings.  They can also be key in creating a culture of belonging which allows individuals to feel safe and less worried about failing.

Jane Welsh, August 2020


References
Brene Brown, ‘Daring Greatly’, Penguin Random House, 2013
Dr Pauline R Clance, ‘The Imposter Syndrome: when success makes you feel like a fake’ 1985
Dr P R Clance and Dr S A Imes, ‘The Inposter Syndrome in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention’, 1978
Gill Corkindale ‘Overcoming Imposter Syndrome’, HBR, 7 May 2020
Amy Cuddy, ‘Presence’ Orion Publishing, 2016
Arlan Cuncic, ‘What is imposter syndrome’, verywell mind website, 1 May 2020
Carol Dweck, ‘Mindset’, Robinson, 2017
Barbara Fredrickson, ‘Positivity’, Oneworld, 2011
Shana Lebowitz ‘Men are suffering from a psychological phenomenon that can undermine their success, but they’re too ashamed to talk about it.’  Business Insider, January 2016
Dr Valerie Young, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7v-GG3SEWQ TED talk
Dr Valerie Young ‘The 5 Types of Imposters’, Imposter Syndrome website, Dec 2011

To register for our ‘Leading with Imposter Syndrome’ webinar at 8.30 am on 10th September 2020 please follow this link:
https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_jQWOlVmLSMKxztDlsj-ajw