What do Neil Armstrong, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou and Howard Schultz have in common?
Apart from all being incredibly good at what they do, they have all also said publicly they suffer with Imposter Syndrome. These people who have achieved amazing things have still felt vulnerable and unsure about their talents – and have been honest enough to say so.
I always thought I was special when I had those thoughts. But it turned out it wasn’t just me. I wasn’t the only one who lay awake at night worrying that disaster was just around the corner, that the next day I would be ‘found out’ and proved to be the fake and fraud I always knew I was. It’s not unusual. It’s not even rare. In fact, 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives. 70%!!! And my guess is a lot of the other 30% will do too, but just won’t tell you.
On an individual level, Imposter Syndrome can have some significant adverse impacts.
People struggling with moderate to severe Imposter Syndrome may demonstrate increased levels of worrying and stress, reluctance to try new things or take even small risks, hesitation to speak up and – in some circumstances – full blown anxiety and depression.
But it’s also potentially damaging to organizations as well. Companies that don’t help employees manage their Imposter Syndrome risk not seeing the best from their employees, dealing with higher levels of stress, absence and possibly losing some great talent. They may also miss out on great ideas from employees who can’t speak up, dropping down the innovation curve as a result. And we all know what happens to companies that don’t innovate – they grow stale, lose market share, struggle to attract talent and ultimately many fail completely.
So, what can we do about it – for ourselves and our teams?
As individuals, these 3 things can help:
- We can learn to think more of ourselves – acknowledge our strengths, actively record our successes, and give ourselves permission to celebrate the things we do well. Go back over our careers and log everything that we’ve achieved. I frequently use this with coaching clients who are grappling with Imposter Syndrome. I encourage them to create a Little List of Awesomeness. It might feel strange at first, but it is very powerful. We can also stop expecting to be perfect – we don’t expect anyone else to be, so why are we so hard on ourselves? Whose expectations are we trying to live up to?
- We can practice thinking less about ourselves – focus less on how we look or what others may be thinking about us, and more on the task in hand – the message we want to get across in our presentation or the impact we want our project to make.It’s obvious, but when we are conscious of ourselves, we become self-conscious, which can make us feel vulnerable. If we put our focus elsewhere, we can reduce that risk and leave ourselves free to put our effort and energy into the task itself.
- We can be open to all feedback – asking for what we do well, not just what we need to improve. I sometimes think we are hardwired to dwell on our mistakes. Perhaps this is just a fundamental human safety mechanism – a throwback to our survival instincts from earlier times. Whatever, it’s my experience that we are much more likely to seek to fix our failings than to build on our strengths. If we learn to ask what worked as well as what didn’t, not only do we hear good things about ourselves – bolstering our self-esteem and adding to our awesomeness list, we also become more aware of our strengths and appreciate better the contribution we can make.
As leaders we can help our team members navigate this difficult territory by:
- providing good mentoring schemes for team members starting new roles – whether they’re new to the company or just to role. There is good evidence that the risk of Imposter Syndrome increases when we feel out of place or start something new.
- promoting a culture of constructive feedback and spending as least as much time talking about how to use strengths more effectively as we do on addressing weaknesses.
- building a sense of belonging and community among our team and designing projects and processes to bring people together whenever possible.
The bad news is Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating – both for the individual and for the organization – the good news is it doesn’t need to be!