"Oh-oh, yes, I'm the great pretender
Pretending that I'm doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I'm lonely, but no one can tell
Yes, I'm the great pretender
Just laughin' and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I'm not, you see" (The Platters, 1955)
At one point or another, everyone has dealt with feelings of inadequacy. Those feelings can manifest into something insidious called the imposter syndrome (IS), impacting not only ourselves but those we interact with or lead. The term was coined in 1978 by two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, from Georgia State University (Sherman, 2013). The phenomenon is well documented from multiple, intersectional perspectives ranging from academia, medicine, and minority groups.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
"Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success." (Corkindale, 2008) People suffering from IS express feeling like frauds, chronic self-doubt, and find their success hard to accept as their own. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to acknowledge the "imposter" feeling and seek help to overcome it. This phenomenon can occur to anyone, leader or follower, regardless of industry or experience level. Leaders, especially, have the responsibility to manage their sense of self while also motivating and empowering others. The imposter syndrome is not something one person needs to overcome, but a challenge leaders should address, especially in their quest to promote diversity and inclusion.
My encounter with the imposter syndrome was when I started my first job out of college. Within a couple of months of being hired, I was promoted to project leader. At first, I was ecstatic. However, my excitement quickly turned to feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. Those feelings persisted until I started to experience anxiety and high levels of stress. As an oldies music fan, The Great Pretender by The Platters was the only way to express what I was going through to my closest family and friends. I felt my promotion was due to me overselling myself during the interview process and not based on my successes. After many months of coping and staying silent about my struggles, I decided to look for a new job and, after, announced my resignation. The turning point was when the CEO called me into his office. What happened next was unexpected. He listened to me, and for the first time, I felt understood. He saw me, a young college graduate, capable of achieving success but struggling with imposter syndrome. After a very long conversation, he convinced me to stay by offering to be my mentor. The imposter syndrome did not go away immediately. However, I had support from leadership and, with time, settled into my role.
Inside the Imposter Syndrome
What are the triggers of imposter syndrome? A common trigger is a change due to transitional experiences such as a new career, a new job, or promotion. There is one psychological symptom everyone can relate to, and that is fear: fear of separation and fear of failure. It is natural to seek acceptance from co-workers in a new role or environment and worry about making the right impression. We worry about what others think of us and whether we fit in or stand out. Fear of separation will cause us to set unrealistic expectations and demonstrate a level of unsustainable effort. Fear of failure is the driver for unstainable expectations, over-preparation, and seeking perfection. "Trying to be perfect and feeling the need to "know it all" is unrealistic and can be costly on a personal level" (Sherman, 2003). As a result, those suffering from imposter syndrome will experience high-stress levels, anxiety and are prone to burnout (Gallagher, 2019).
Internalized micromessages communicated during a person's academic development are triggers for IS. Some researchers believe parents and teachers program children with messages about superiority, competency, and perfection. The child is so fully supported that they believe they are superior or perfect (Corkindale, 2008). The impacts are an inability to deal with mistakes and failure, seeking external validation, and experiencing fear of being ostracized or ridiculed.
Facing race-based and gender-based stereotypes in the workplace are triggers and especially common for folks who belong to minority groups. Stereotype threat, a predicament in which people are at the risk of confirming negative stereotypes, magnifies fear of separation and fear of failure contributing to performance anxiety, stress, and depression (Collins et al., 2020). They may think their success is based on luck, timing, working hard, or filling quotas and not based on their own experience and qualifications.
How to spot symptoms of imposter syndrome:
- Downplaying success or unable to internalize successes
- Avoiding feedback
- Reluctance to seek help
- Overworking at the risk of burnout
- Over preparation
Mitigate Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome has real business implications. The impacts are considerable, and recognizing the symptoms can significantly reduce dysfunctional teams, loss of human resources and protect profitability. Consider the following consequences:
- Reduce productivity
- Reduce creativity and problem-solving
- Loss of talented, highly skilled employees
- Costly mistakes due to indecision, a lack of confidence or focus
- Low morale
- Unhealthy work habits
- Reduce wellness
Here some ways leaders can mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome.
- Setting realistic expectations: Leaders and their subordinates must work together to set realistic expectations. Be honest about the inevitability of failure. Leaders can establish a healthy tone of how to work through failure and lessen the stigma. Consider if expectations are empowering or disabling. (Sherman, 2013)
- Foster psychological safety at work: Everyone can normalize feelings of self-doubt. Normalize discussions of how healthy doses of self-doubt can lead to success. It's ok for leaders to admit they don't have all the answers. Work through challenges collaboratively by engaging in creative, problem-solving activities.
- Invest in developing professional identity: Plan for competency training. Make a list of your strengths and of your team. It's useful to understand there may be times you or your team have to go through steep learning curves depending on the problem sets and circumstances (Sherman, 2013). Reframe failure as learning opportunities (Corkindale, 2008).
- Encourage self-care and include initiatives: Promote self-care to help reduce stress and burnout. Allow time for critical self-reflection, recharging, and show gratitude. Self-care ensures the organization's health and fosters the development of professional identity (Gallagher, 2019). It also helps leaders take the time to gather insights and practice foresight, which leads to ethical servant leadership (Greenleaf, 2008).
- Mentorship programs: Create a culture of inclusion. Everyone can benefit from the support of a senior member, role-model, or mentor to develop competencies and professional identity (Gallagher, 2019). Culturally responsive mentoring programs and diversity training can help curve bias, foster trusting relationships, and eliminate imposter syndrome's harmful effects (Collins et al., 2020).
The imposter syndrome is not a new phenomenon but can rear its ugly head anytime change is present. It is challenging to recognize, and can persist for years. Leaders must recognize it in themselves and others and use their influence to create a work environment where the imposter syndrome cannot thrive. One thing to keep in mind is that IS is a sign of highly talented employees, therefore, leaders must positively cultivate their employees' professional identity in the best interest of their organization. It is the ethical responsibility of leadership to facilitate a culture that aims to reduce the imposter syndrome through inclusion and empowerment.
Collins, K. H., Price, E. F., Hanson, L., & Neaves, D. (2020). Consequences of Stereotype Threat and Imposter Syndrome: The Personal Journey from STEM-Practitioner to STEM-educator for Four Women of Color. Taboo, 19(4), 161-180. https://ezproxy.roberts.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.roberts.edu/scholarly-journals/consequences-stereotype-threat-imposter-syndrome/docview/2456177611/se-2?accountid=13562
Corkindale, G. (2008). Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome#:~:text=Imposter%20syndrome%20can%20be%20defined,external%20proof%20of%20their%20competence.
Gallagher, S.R (2019). Professional Identity and Imposter Syndrome. Clinical Teacher, 16 (4), 426-427. https://doi-org.ezproxy.roberts.edu/10.1111/tct.13042
Greenleaf, R. K. (2008). The Servant as Leader. The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Sherman, R. O. (2013). Imposter syndrome: when you feel like you're faking it. American Nurse Today, 8(5),57+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A335410366/AONE?u=nysl_ro_robwesc&sid=AONE&xid=c9bc0ce8