Imposter Syndrome: What you need to know

Imposter Syndrome: What you need to know

Behind the faces and in the recesses of the minds of many successful people lurks a pervasive condition. It’s called the imposter syndrome. It doesn’t discriminate and is experienced in all walks of professional life. Although prevalent in all genders and across all industry and educational sectors, and in all types of workplace settings, it has been found to be more prevalent in high achievers, women and people from under-represented racial, ethnic and religious minority groups. If left unchecked it can lead to a wide range of psycho-neuro-biological conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. If not addressed in certain environments it has the ability to escalate into more serious mental health disorders.

The imposter syndrome is a psychological state, where people express self-doubt about their abilities, skills and accomplishments, despite factual evidence to the contrary or other people indicating otherwise. Emergent studies led by Mona Leonhardt, Myriam Bechtoldt and Sonja Rohrmann suggest there are at least two types of imposter syndrome: true imposters and strategic syndromal imposters.
Strategic syndromal imposters (strategic imposters) are those people who actively engage in impression management. These are people who downplay their abilities in order to positively influence the image or perception of how others regard them. This behaviour, which may be conscious or unconscious, has been learnt in formative years in order to convey modesty. Strategic imposter syndrome surfaces in situations where difficulty or potential failure is judged to be a probable outcome. Colleagues or associates are therefore more likely to react more positively than they would if the individual had boasted about or overly presented their abilities.
True imposters are those who typically attribute their success to a range of external factors such as hard work or the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. They suffer from a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud; believing they have fooled their peers into overestimating their abilities and professional competence and at any moment they will be found out. They will reject compliments or recognition for their efforts and rubbish the importance of any positive evaluations of their achievements, considering them as being undeserved. Factors such as appreciation, power and status, which are linked to their success, do not increase confidence in their own capabilities. To the contrary, they trigger fears of failure.
Historically, it was presumed that people experiencing the true impostor phenomenon were fearful of being overrated because they viewed themselves as less competent than others. Studies have shown it is not a comparison with others that drives the phenomenon it is an internal negative faulty belief that is activated in particular situations. Its origins are conceived in childhood. Imposter syndrome if left unaddressed grows in intensity and can lead to reduced workplace performance, procrastination, limiting or poor career choices or outcomes as well as unfulfilled potential.
The imposter syndromes are not false modesty and ought to be taken seriously. To address it, organisations need to recognise and increase the visibility of the problem and provide access to supportive organisational initiatives. These include one to one peer coaching and mentoring, as well as access to bespoke development programmes. All internal and external mentors and coaches should be taught to recognise the syndrome and its impact on performance and its potential negative consequences.
Guidance for individuals who find themselves subject to the imposter syndrome is to: firstly, notice and recognise when the voice of their internal harshest doubter and critic emerges, and secondly practice a series of fear resetting interventions. These interventions interrupt and interfere with the faulty thinking process enabling the individual to see the world in a more constructive, realistic or positive way.
In the book Believe Me, by Eddie Izzard, commentator, comedian (pronouns used are he or she), he describes a strategy he adopted to help him tackle his fears and imposter syndrome when it occurred throughout his career:
 “I sat on the bed and came up with a plan for myself: I have to go to the Edinburgh Fringe. But I don’t have the confidence. So, I will just act as if I do have the confidence to go to the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ll just borrow confidence from a future version of myself. Once I’ve been to the Edinburgh Fringe and performed a show there, then I will have the confidence to go to the Edinburgh Fringe. I will go to the bank manager of confidence, in some part of my brain, and I will borrow that confidence from the future, and then I can wear it like a cloak, and I will talk to everyone with this confidence. It was out there as a concept, but it worked.”
Imposter syndrome doesn’t have to hold anyone back. Once recognised, it can be managed and more importantly can be channelled to be a more supportive response and deliver better personal and professional desires and outcomes. The research evidence demonstrates this and so does the overwhelming feedback we’ve received from men and women.
Tackling Imposter Syndrome is a topic covered as part of the Building Superior Confidence Module of our ACCELERATE Programme.
Sue Liburd MBE DL is a Non Executive Director of ABSTRACT and Managing Director of Sage Blue. She is an award-winning businesswoman, human capital innovation consultant and business mentor. Sue won the Champion of Inclusion Award at the 2019 Inclusive Companies Awards and features in the HERoes 100 Women Executives List for 2020, showcasing leaders and executives who are leading by example and driving change to increase gender diversity in the workplace.
 

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