workplace imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can have a corrosive effect on the performance of business leaders. Definable as a feeling of inadequacy that persists despite demonstrable evidence of success, it’s a condition that can – in its most extreme form – result in executives feeling they are frauds within their own lives. Over time, self-doubt can morph into a mental health condition. It is damaging to individuals and their organisations, but it can be addressed.  

So, what are we talking about here? Well, by definition, stepping into a new role tends to involve an element of uncertainty or even risk. A software engineer who is put in charge of a major project for the first time will be parachuted into an unfamiliar decision-making role. The same is true of a senior executive appointed to the role of CEO. There is no longer any question of where the buck stops.

In these circumstances, a certain amount of self-reflection is natural and beneficial. It’s important to be aware – for example – that a promotion raises the stakes and usually involves a learning curve. New skills must be nurtured while personal qualities may be tested. It’s something a newly appointed leader should be prepared for.

But imposter syndrome is something different. Anyone taking on more responsibility within an organisation has probably been selected on the grounds of their experience, skills and previous success. As such, they should be able to step into the new role with a high degree of confidence. Imposter syndrome eats away at an individual’s necessary self-belief.

Usually, this takes the form of a nagging feeling of inadequacy. A leader might begin to feel that their skills and intellect are inadequate for the task at hand. And they may begin to feel that the people around them will detect their inadequacy unless steps are taken to keep it hidden. The result can be depression, anxiety and burnout.

A High Achiever Problem

As reported in Personnel Today, high achievers tend to suffer the most from imposter syndrome. The prevalence of the condition also varies from industry to industry. People working in high-pressure, high-stakes environments are most likely to report the condition. People working in science, pharmaceuticals and medicine are particularly vulnerable.

But there’s another factor. Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever. Research has found that groups who are new to certain professions are also prone to self-doubt. This could apply to people from ethnic minority backgrounds who are breaking into a profession that could have been difficult for their parents or grandparents to access.

The imposter phenomenon (as they called it) was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Susan Imes in the 70s. Their work was largely focused on women when workplaces tended to be more male-dominated.

And even today, there is evidence that women are more inclined to acknowledge imposter syndrome than their male counterparts. A KPMG study found that 75 percent of high-achieving women had experienced feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt in their careers. Some (almost half) said their doubts stemmed from an unexpected rise through their chosen organisations. Put simply, they hadn’t expected to fly quite so high. Eight out of ten said they put more pressure on themselves to succeed than their male co-workers. 

That’s not to say that men don’t suffer. Dr Jon van Nierker, group clinical director at Cygnet Health Care, in speaking with the Independent newspaper, noted that the incidence of the phenomenon was across the gender spectrum. However, he noted that men may be more reluctant to report or talk about the condition.

There is perhaps a wider problem here. As Forbes Council member Muraly Srinarayanathas recently noted, men are expected to be “strong, stoic and unemotional, regardless of the scenario.” As a result, mental health issues may be slow to surface. In the long run, this could be damaging for the business.  

Personality Traits

Forbes reported that there are several personality traits associated with Imposter Syndrome.  Perfectionists can begin to doubt themselves if a situation isn’t perfect. Similarly, people who consider themselves experts, struggle to accept that their knowledge of certain subjects might be limited. Then there are the natural geniuses and those who consider themselves superhuman. They tend to assess their performance on how easy it is to complete a task or how rapidly a result can be achieved. Again, doubts can set in when their sense of their own abilities clash with the struggle of taking on new responsibilities. Finally, there are soloists – people who like to do everything on their own. They tend to be reluctant to ask for help and they can end up feeling isolated and not properly equipped for the tasks at hand.

The Changing Face of Leadership

There is a bigger picture. Management structures are changing, drawing more people into leadership positions. The nature of this change was outlined in a recent McKinsey report. As the consultancy observes, businesses are developing networks of self-managing teams with the aim of creating businesses that are dynamic and sustainable. Those teams are providing new opportunities for visionaries with leadership skills. Many will find themselves on unfamiliar ground. 

Addressing the Problem

So, how can individuals and organisations address the problem of imposter syndrome? Writing in Forbes, Erik Pham says the first step is to recognise that there might be a problem. Once the issue has been addressed on a personal level, the next step could be talking to others who have faced similar issues, either in a one-to-one or group therapy session. Pham also points to “compassion-based therapy” as a way forward. 

Organisations can also play an important role, by providing mentoring, coaching and possibly also mental health and wellbeing support for staff.