Imposter syndrome: a leadership challenge

Michelle Obama undoubtedly put imposter syndrome back on the radar with her memoir Belonging and, in our work, we see many more leaders prepared to hold up their hands and tell stories of how the dreaded imposter syndrome has impacted them and their careers.

It was originally discovered in the 1970s by a psychologist called Dr Pauline Rose Clance – after observing self-sabotaging behaviours in several her students. The original study was based on females however it has since been proven to impact across genders, race, age and occupations.

One research study found that 70% of people report that they have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their lifetimes (International Journal of Behavioural Science).

Many of our clients understand what triggers their imposter feelings and even how to combat it when it does rear its ugly head however, there is less understanding of how to mentor others with imposter syndrome or even how to spot the signs.

We know from various clinical studies and the research of Dr Valerie Young and Claire Josa that imposter syndrome tends to strike when an individual is exposed to one (or more!) of the following triggers:

  • Newness – new role, new organisation, new team or new responsibilities – taking on something new can trigger our feelings of inadequacy or lack of belonging
  • Pressure – high stakes situations or demanding client projects can also send us into a negative thinking spiral where we question our abilities
  • Scrutiny – situations where we are under the microscope such as interviews or promotion panels can often cause us to question whether we are good enough for the role
  • Difference – feeling or being different to others (perceived or real differences) can cause us to feel a lack of belonging or having our different pointed out to us by others

But imposter syndrome is not just an individual challenge – it also impacts team dynamics and team performance.

Imposter syndrome in teams causes

  • A lack of belonging in teams – which can cause greater politics and resentment, lower job engagement and satisfaction and higher attrition especially among minority groups
  • An unwillingness for individuals to contribute fully – someone experiencing imposter feelings might hold back ideas and suggestions and therefore, can be a blocker to innovation and creativity
  • Increased people-pleasing especially among the high-achievers in your teams – feeling that they are unable to say no and increasing the cycle of overwork and burnout
  • Increased self-sabotaging through procrastination – individuals might avoid challenging conversations or activities where they are under scrutiny (such as difficult client calls) and then leaving important work to the last minute causing long hours and stress around deadlines.

Imposter syndrome is insidious within teams and therefore, it is important as a leader that you understand how you can mentor/support your team.

Five strategies & ideas which we recommend to our coaching clients

  1. Normalise imposter feelings – share your experience with imposter syndrome and convey the message that this is common and experienced by many leaders at some point in their careers.
  2. Challenge negative self-talk – if your mentee/team member is sharing their negative thoughts about their capabilities or performance, challenge this with data and your experiences of them. Help them realise that they have strengths and support them to utilise their strengths more fully.
  3. Positive messaging – encouragement and supportive messages are key. Even if it’s just to affirm that they belong in the team, have a role to play and that you value them.
  4. Context matters – particularly when supporting minority groups it’s important to acknowledge their experience. They don’t just feel imposter syndrome – they are made to feel it by the structures and team they find themselves in. Their difference is real and it isn’t just their problem to solve.
  5. Give credit – ensure that recognition is given to the right team members and that you regularly share feedback and thanks with the whole team.

These are just a few ideas to help you spot and tackle imposter syndrome in your teams. If you’d like more information on how we coach leaders with imposter syndrome or would like information about one of our expert webinars/workshops, please do reach out.