As CEOs, we're expected to make tough decisions to steer the business in the right direction. But when we feel a crippling doubt that persists despite our successes and achievements, we may be experiencing imposter syndrome.
While this phenomenon is more common than many realize, it doesn’t mean it should be ignored or brushed off as weakness. Left unchecked, impostor syndrome can minimize performance of executives and their teams, and result in negative psychological impacts that leak beyond the business.
Defining Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is a false belief that one's achievements are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill. This term was first coined in 1978 by psychologist Suzanne Imes and Georgia State University psychology professor Pauline Clance. They noticed that many of their female clients were unable to accept their own successes, instead attributing their achievements to luck, timing, charm, contacts and other factors.
Those that suffer from imposter syndrome often feel that they don’t deserve their accomplishments. They feel unequal to the tasks demanded by their role. A classic symptom is a lingering feeling of being a fraud, usually accompanied by a feeling that it’s only a matter of time before one is exposed.
Ironically, most people suffering from imposter syndrome are chronic overachievers. The self-doubt is experienced despite external evidence of their accomplishments, and their condition usually gets worse through further accomplishment, promotion, or other evidence of success.
The Impact of Imposter Syndrome on an Organization
Left unchecked, impostor syndrome can take a heavy toll on both professional and personal lives. The persistent feeling that one doesn’t deserve one's success can distort one's self-image and create significant demoralization, yielding classic behaviors like procrastination, indecision, self-defeating communication, and over-expectation. Indeed, "neurotic imposters" tend to push themselves and those around them too hard, which may be detrimental to long-term success due to burnout. Impatience and abrasiveness towards goals and success can translate into absenteeism and high employee turnover rates.
The effect of imposter syndrome on the quality of decision making is also dangerous. Managers and executives who suffer from imposter syndrome are usually unlikely to trust their own judgement. The cautious approach to leadership may suppress the organization’s entrepreneurial capabilities.
Who is More Susceptible to Imposter Syndrome?
Everyone can experience impostor syndrome. However, women, especially women of color, are more likely to suffer from it. 75 percent of executive women report having experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. As Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles puts it, women in the workplace are more vulnerable to imposter syndrome if they don’t see other women that share their background and are clearly succeeding. This is especially true for indigenous and black women for whom there is insufficient representation across white-collar fields.
Some researchers believe that in some cases imposter syndrome originates in one’s family upbringing. This happens when parents program their children with “messages of superiority”, as Gill Corkindale puts it in her article published for Harvard Business Review. Those who receive general praise throughout their childhood can create tendencies for imposter syndrome once they reach adulthood. The same can be said about people who have received constant criticism as children and young adults and who later on are naturally predisposed to feel that they’re “never good enough”.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: 3 Tangible Strategies
To avoid the vicious cycle, it’s important to be able to mitigate the negative effects of imposter syndrome in time. Here are some tactics that have worked with our advisees and clients:
- Recognize the problem. As a first step, we must acknowledge what we're feeling. This self-awareness will give us the frame of reference we need to take further steps to overcome imposter syndrome.
- Reframe thoughts. We must make a habit of listing our accomplishments when self-doubt around performance arises. The list doesn’t have to be long, but is a way for us to internalize and celebrate small wins. Choosing an appropriate support person outside of the hierarchy can help with this reframing too.
- Treat failure as necessary. Remember that we don’t know everything - and that’s okay. Mistakes are not only normal, but often necessary to having large magnitudes of impact.
Feeling like an executive imposter should be seen as a choice, not a reality, especially in today's fast-paced, ever-changing world—a choice that many CEOs have successfully reversed. While it isn't easy, there are incremental steps and tactics we can all follow to continue to elevate our managerial effectiveness as well as the satisfaction of ourselves and our teams.
Photo by Mulyadi.