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“I don’t deserve to be here”: the prevalence of imposter syndrome among successful leaders

‘Corrine’ is a hard worker who consistently smashes her KPIs. Over time, she becomes invaluable to her employer, who rewards her by promoting her to a position of authority. It’s a well-deserved win – simply put, she’s the best person for the job. Corrine, however, doesn’t agree. She believes she has tricked her way into the C-suite and fears buckling under the weight of great expectations. Corrine, like a number of high-achievers, has ‘imposter syndrome’.

Dynamic Business spoke to Dr Natalie Ferres, a psychologist and director of strategic leadership firm Bendelta about imposter syndrome, one of her areas of interest. In addition to detailing the symptoms, adverse effects and prevalence among leaders, she offered strategies to help people manage self-doubt and get on with doing a good job.

 What is imposter syndrome and what causes it?

Imposter syndrome was first described in the late 1970s by clinical psychologists Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. Initially referred to as the ‘imposter phenomenon’, sufferers are convinced their success is the result of a ruse and that they’ll be found out for ‘pulling the wool over people’s eyes’. Despite external evidence of competence, some of the common thoughts and feeling sufferers have, while in ‘imposter mode, include: ‘I’m a fake, ‘I’ve been lucky’, ‘I must not fail’ and ‘success isn’t important’. It’s a heady combination of fear of failure mixed with fear of success.

“The causes are still being investigated but some researchers believe it relates to the labels parents often attach to their children. For example, parents might designate child A the ‘intelligent one’ but refer to child B, who is sensitive to imposter syndrome, as the ‘socially skilled one’, resulting in child B believing intelligence is best internalised. Another theory is that children who’ve been programmed with messages of superiority by their parents find it difficult to live up to this image or narrative. But there are so many exceptions to these patterns that it is dangerous to generalise.”

Are leaders susceptible to imposter syndrome?

“Research suggests imposter syndrome is most common in high achievers. Generally, the people are more likely to rise to leadership positions, meaning the business world is populated by leaders who believe they’re frauds or, at least occasionally, suffer from bouts of imposter syndrome. In Jones’ 2015 study of over 100 CEOs and executives written up in Harvard Business Review, the biggest fear among leaders was being found to be incompetent, which is squarely related to “imposter syndrome”. So, if you’ve ever felt like this, take comfort – you are not alone!

“Neuroscientist Bradley Voytek has written about imposter syndrome being rampant among smart, conscientious people, and that ‘at some point during your career, possibly more than once, you will look at your peers and think to yourself, “I’m not as good as they are; I am not cut out for this…’

“Some research points to imposter syndrome being most common in high-achieving women. It is argued that women undervalue themselves or avoid putting themselves forward whereas some men tend to ‘wing it’. Imes, in a paper called “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women’, theorised that women are uniquely predisposed to the impostor phenomenon, “since success for women is contraindicated by societal expectations and their own internalised self-evaluations.” More recent studies indicate that men are as likely, or nearly as likely, to report imposter syndrome as women. In any event, gender differences should be investigated more fully, especially as more women succeed in their fields.”

How does imposter syndrome affect people?

“Imposter syndrome is not a pathological condition and people don’t suffer from it all the time. It’s less of a constant foe and more of a triggered response. In fact, it’s possible for someone to display imposter syndrome in one situation but feel brilliant, creative and special in another setting. Like a headache, it can be draining when it occurs but transitory. However, if bouts of imposter syndrome become increasingly frequent, the negative impacts can become cumulative, leading to chronic self-doubt. If imposter syndrome reaches debilitating levels, it can result in one (or a combination of) the following:

  • Approval-seeking behaviours and a thirst for external validation
  • Hard work, often to the point of workaholism, to avoid being discovered as a fraud
  • Diminished confidence
  • Erosion of relationships with peers
  • Loss of confidence from peers due to the person downplaying their success
  • Avoidance of career and other opportunities lest you fail
  • Obsessing about mistakes and negative feedback, causing a mental and emotional drain, reduced resilience and agility.”
Can people overcome or even benefit from it?

“The inner ‘imposter’ voice can, if harnessed constructively, be a valuable source of information.  Some argue people shouldn’t try to switch it off completely – and that’s probably impossible anyway. One way to deal with imposter syndrome is to view it as proof that you are a high achiever who puts in the hard yards, and acknowledge the career benefits that flow from this. Leaders who think imposter syndrome is ‘more foe than friend’, however, can try the following strategies:

  • Become mindful of your imposter mode. What are the triggers? What does your inner critic say to you? What are your usual responses? Are there any patterns? Building self-awareness is the necessary foundation to change.
  • Name it. Name your feelings and experiences as imposter syndrome. Don’t judge it negatively. Remember that you’re in good company.
  • Positively reframe. By acknowledging that imposter syndrome is normal, you can help reduce ill-effects. Also, create a positive go-to phrase: e.g. “just because I feel incompetent right now does not mean that I am a fraud.”
  • Take a hard look at working hard. Are you compensating for something? Is it making you feel less or more worthy (noting that it can do both).
  • Practice self-compassion. You’re often harder on yourself than you are on others. Look objectively at the situation. How would you respond to a friend in the same situation?”
Is being overconfident as detrimental as imposter syndrome?

“There are people in leadership roles who lack the necessary skills but are confident and talk the talk – this is by far more detrimental than imposter syndrome. You’d much prefer to have leaders with a bit of self-doubt rather than leaders with self-serving incompetence and delusion! While many leaders do need to fake it until they make, those who seriously lack a respect for the limits of their own abilities and have no self-awareness can be found wanting. So, don’t worry if you feel like an imposter sometimes in a leadership position.”

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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