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Impostor Syndrome 101: Causes, Symptoms and Implications for Executives and Businesses



Synopsis

Impostor Syndrome is a common challenge that can negatively impact mental health and work performance. Caused by a variety of factors, including childhood experiences, personality traits, and societal pressures, overcoming these feelings of self-doubt isn’t easy. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge them, cultivate self-compassion, and focus on personal growth and development.


Seeking out support to build self-belief and confidence from experienced professionals (coaches, counsellors, mentors) is strongly recommended.


“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Albert Einstein

Background

1978. Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes describe a psychological pattern where, at its simplest, individuals doubt their abilities and accomplishments. Even when they have deep, undeniable, tangible evidence of their competence and success, they believe that they are not deserving of their achievements and that they have deceived others to the contrary.


Epitomised by fear. Of being a “fraud”. Of being “found out”. That you “don’t deserve to be here”. That you “haven’t earned your place at the table". That you’re “not good enough”, a new label comes into being. Impostor Syndrome.


“There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” Sheryl Sandberg

Remarkably, around 70% of us suffer from this psychological phenomenon and ironically, it’s particularly common among high achievers. Business, academia, the arts. (a few noteworthy examples are included at the end of the article)

Causes

Impostor Syndrome can be caused by several factors, including childhood experiences, personality traits, and societal pressures. Or a combination of those and more. People who were raised in environments where success was not celebrated, where pressure from parents was intense, where individuals were constantly criticised may develop a sense of inadequacy. Drivers of feeling “not good enough” instilled in childhood by parents, relatives, teachers etc and then become internalised and habitualised narratives.


Add in societal expectations of success, a conditioned pressure to conform to certain standards, workplace performance measures and competitive environments. These all play a fundamental part in building the story around the beliefs we hold and tell ourselves, about ourselves.


You are in good company. Here are some high-profile talents that have struggled with long-term lmpostor Syndrome:

  • Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

  • Emma Watson, actress and activist

  • Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks

  • Richard Branson, founder ofthe Virgin Group

  • Maya Angelou, author and poet

  • Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post

  • Tom Hanks, actor and filmmaker

  • Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon​

In short, these beliefs risk creating a glass-ceiling.


They limit what we will push ourselves to try or do in case we fail and are “found out”. They stop us driving to new heights in case our “true worth” is exposed.

“I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.” Mike Myers

As your brain delivers its message that you can’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t attempt things, we use this ‘reasoning’ as an excuse for avoidance. The result of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy that inhibits us from growth, success, and recognition.



Symptoms

The list is long, broad, deep, and includes, for example:

  • Extreme lack of self-confidence

  • Feelings of inadequacy

  • Comparison to other people

  • Anxiety and Stress

  • Self-doubt

  • Pursuit of perfectionism

  • Avoiding extra responsibilities

  • Difficulty accepting praise

  • Downplaying success

  • Fear of failure

  • Self-sabotage

  • Over preparation


These feelings can have a fundamental negative impact on mental health and overall well-being with chronic long-term consequences. They frequently occur in combinations, making them even more damaging.



Implications for Executives and Businesses

Impostor Syndrome has a significant impact on executives in the workplace. They experience the same symptoms but the consequence for the business are significant:


1. Lack of confidence

Leaders may hesitate to take risks or make decisions, which can impede the progress of the business, lead to missed opportunities for growth or innovation.

“You think, ”why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?” Meryl Streep


2. Fear of failure

Leaders avoid taking on new challenges or projects for fear of failing or being exposed as a fraud causing missed growth opportunities for both the executive and the business.

3. Perfectionism

Those with Impostor Syndrome may set unrealistic expectations for themselves and their team, which can lead to burnout, decreased morale, declines in culture, high levels of attrition etc. as well as stifling creativity and innovation.

4. Negative self-talk

This can impact mental health and well-being. As well as the extended implications of that alone, this can also affect a leaders ability to inspire confidence within their team.

“When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they'd take it back. They'd come to my house, knocking on the door, "Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep." Jodie Foster

5. Difficulty delegating

Individuals who struggle with Impostor Syndrome may feel like they need to do everything themselves to prove their worth, which can lead to micromanaging, decreased productivity, a lack of perspective, a lack of innovation. This can also lead to the team not feeling empowered or recognized, driving high levels of attrition and lack of business continuity.


The bottom line? Impostor Syndrome can – does – fundamentally, negatively, impact the success of a business by limiting the potential of its leaders, impeding progress and innovation and decreasing team morale and performance, all of which drive costs higher and productivity lower.



How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome



To address Impostor Syndrome in the workplace, it is important for leaders to acknowledge and address feelings of self-doubt. As well as individualized development work in that space, it is also important for businesses to create a culture of support and encouragement, ensuring all employees are recognized for their achievements and given opportunities to grow and develop their skills.


Some of the developmental pathways that could be considered include:


1. Acknowledge your inner critic

Notice what you say to yourself when you think of that next step that could lead to greater things. At this point, it is simply about awareness - after all, you can’t change what you are not aware of.


“Even though I had sold 70 million albums, there I was feeling like "I’m no good at this” Jennifer Lopez

2. Validate your thoughts

Remember that while thoughts are important, they are just thoughts. Focus on facts rather than fears. Is what your thoughts are telling you really, objectively true, credible or are they simply an assumption on which we have no evidence or a made-up narrative yu are chossing to tell yourself.


3. Talk to others

Especially people you trust. Their opinions matter to you and will impact your thinking patterns significantly. Not only will they provide an invaluable point of objectivity, you might be surprised how many colleagues can relate to how you feel…remember, the vast majority of the population have been in this space too.


4. Write your thoughts down

As well as externalising by talking to other people, get your words out of your head. On paper. In black and white. Doing that helps observe and evaluate their reality and objectivity.


5. Acknowledge your goals

Own your successes. Keep a record of positive feedback. Practice listening to compliments, praise, and reflect on it so it becomes embedded. If we don’t notice our strengths, and correctly attribute the reason for our achievements how do we expect others to?


6. Find people you admire

We naturally compare ourselves. The key however, is how you compare yourself. Do you continually look at others, what they have/know/do, as a way to relegate yourself below them. Or do you admire and respect their achievements and use that to help us strive to grow and to help us calibrate when good enough is indeed good enough.


7. Embrace it

Work to become comfortable with ‘you’ - who you truly are. Recognise ‘you’. See ‘you’ Celebrate ‘you’. Don’t label it as good or bad, better or worse. Just see it, accept it as is. Cultivate self-compassion.


8. Cultivate a growth mindset

Adopting a positive attitude towards failure, shift your perspective on setbacks and look at them more as opportunities to learn and improve. By reframing these experiences in a positive light, individuals can build confidence and resilience in the face of adversity.



Overcoming imposter syndrome means changing our self-story. Changing our beliefs about ourselves. It takes time but can be done. Our brains have a neuroplastic quality - meaning we are able to intentionally choose to reshape our patterns of thinking and behaving. We can think ourselves differently and carve out the path we want to follow. Literally rewiring the brain in the process.


Combatting imposter syndrome is not about becoming arrogant or narcissistic. It is about being comfortable with who we are, what we can do and how we can keep learning. None of us can do everything but we all have abilities and strengths to recognize, to share and to celebrate.


And as leaders, we have a duty and responsibility to role-model best practices in the workplace. That includes how we view and respond to Imposter Syndrome. As always, leadership matters and it will make a profound difference to support, nurture and inspire the next generation.

 

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