The Business Imperative for Addressing Impostor Syndrome

Kim Meninger

January 04, 2022

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Have you ever felt like a fraud? Have you ever worried that, despite all the external evidence of your success, others will soon find out that you don't belong in your role? If so, you know the pain of impostor syndrome. And you're not alone. Conservative estimates suggest that roughly 70% of the population will experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, most of us continue to believe that we're the only ones who feel this way.

The "impostor phenomenon," as it was originally called, was first coined in the late 1970s by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two psychologists doing research at Georgia State University. Their research was focused exclusively on women with very little racial, socioeconomic or other diversity. For many years, it was believed that impostor syndrome only affected women until later research showed that anyone can experience its effects.

While anyone can experience impostor syndrome, it commonly occurs in people who feel different from the majority culture around them. Therefore, we tend to see it more often in women, people of color and other members of underrepresented groups in the workplace. And while it's easy to assume that this is a personal issue that must be addressed at an individual level, organizations ignore impostor syndrome at their own risk.

As stated previously, most professionals will experience impostor syndrome at points throughout their career. Beyond the trend among underrepresented groups, it also often appears among high-achievers and during times of change and uncertainty (i.e. a global pandemic). If your organization, like most, depends upon the creativity and initiative of your workforce to innovate, stay competitive and adapt to dynamic shifts, what is the impact on your business when most of your workforce:

- Doubts that they are qualified to successfully perform their roles
- Hesitates to share their ideas for fear of exposing their perceived incompetence
- Chooses to remain in their comfort zones, rather than take risks, because they fear failure
- Struggles with immense anxiety and stress leading to perfectionism and micromanagement
- Feels threatened by their team's successes because of their own insecurities?

It is time for organizations to address impostor syndrome at a macro-level. While each of us has the responsibility and opportunity to manage our own unique challenges, we cannot do so if companies continue to foster work environments that undermine psychological safety and inclusion.

Here are three simple steps that all leaders can take to minimize impostor syndrome in the workplace:

1. Lead with Vulnerability
Your team takes its cues from you. If you are a perfectionist who doesn't tolerate mistakes within yourself and others, your team will assume that it is unsafe to experiment. They will not share their ideas unless they feel fully baked and risk-free.

Model vulnerability by sharing your stories. When have you experienced impostor syndrome in the past and how have you managed it? When was the last time you made a mistake and how did you address it? What do you do when you're feeling anxious? Sharing normalizes the experience and makes your team feel safer and more confident in their capabilities.

2. Assume Impostor Syndrome
When leading your team, assume that everyone has impostor syndrome because most people do and nobody is going to admit it. Recognize that times of transition, taking on new responsibilities and navigating uncertainty are natural triggers of impostor syndrome. Don't ask your team if they need help - assume they do.

During these times, offer resources proactively. Share trainings and online resources that will help them to feel more prepared for their roles and upcoming projects. Connect them with others who can share insights or help them better understand context. Offer support and resources that you find helpful when you are learning something new.

3. Don't Confuse Lack of Confidence with Incompetence
Women, people of color and other underrepresented groups have often been given implicit and explicit messages that they need to work harder and prove themselves to be taken seriously. They don't feel as though they have the freedom to fail. As a result, they may be more cautious. They may lean on others more often than necessary. Or, they may show hesitation when talking about their work.

These are not signs of incompetence or lack of readiness to take on bigger challenges. These behaviors reflect decades of systemic bias and lack of inclusion. Focus your leadership efforts on making them feel safe to bring their ideas to the table. And demonstrate through your actions that perfection is not the expectation.

Impostor syndrome is a complex issue that will not be solved quickly. But leaders at all levels have the power to minimize its effects on individuals and organizations. If you'd like to bring this conversation to your workplace, please contact Kim Meninger at Kim@ExecutiveCareerSuccess.com.

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