Imposter Syndrome has taken centre stage in our thinking and research over the past year. Working with clients, and delving deeper into the subject, we have come to realise that people are far more likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome in their work if they feel they are from any ‘underrepresented’ group within their community. So this might be a woman in a man’s world or a black person in a white world, a person with working class roots in a middle/upper class world, or someone who is gay in a straight world. It can even be an introvert in an extrovert’s world, a junior colleague in an experienced team, a sensitive man in a ‘macho’ culture or a creative thinker in a process world. From childhood and through adulthood, a sufferer has internalised the unconscious message that these types of roles are ‘not for people like me’.
This is in contrast to, for example, a man from a white, middle class background who has internalised the counter message that he is ‘entitled’ to his senior role because that is what people like him are born and raised to do – he is the archetype for what someone in that role literally ‘looks’ like.
In short, if the people around you don’t reflect back something with which you can ally yourself, or you don’t recognise yourself in them, then you are far more likely to feel that you don’t belong or that you don’t deserve to be where you are. Let’s remind ourselves of exactly what we mean by Imposter Syndrome. Most of us have felt it at some point or other. It’s that feeling that others see us as more competent than we really are – a feeling that often recurs and that disables us from being able to really enjoy where we are and live our fullest potential, which can make us feel ambivalent about our success. It makes us feel anxious and like a fraud – sometimes even when we have achieved something really great. Suffering from Imposter Syndrome is, contrary to what you might think, far from exclusive to people with low self-esteem or no confidence. In fact, it tends to occur most frequently amongst high-achievers and those who are striving and ambitious. In other words, it strikes exactly the people that organisations really want to hang on to!
Individuals from under-represented groups can also experience Imposter Syndrome through the prism of Stereotype Threat – the anxiety that their behaviour might confirm a negative stereotype about the group they are part of. For example, someone from a working class background might feel nervous and intimidated when attending a Board lunch in the private room of a grand restaurant because of the stereotype that working class people don’t have the ‘right’ manners. They worry that if they put a foot wrong then their fellow (middle class background) Board members will think that working class people just don’t know how to behave properly, thereby reinforcing the negative stereotype.
As we became increasingly aware of the strong correlation between feeling like an imposter and being a person from an under-represented group, a big red warning light began to flash in our heads. Imposter Syndrome means that the vicious circle of marginalisation is being perpetuated in the workplace, continuing to threaten and undermine diversity in organisations.
We know this is certainly bad for society, but it is also bad for business. Extensive research has shown that diversity makes businesses perform better – it brings a variety of life experiences and outlooks that contribute towards much more rounded, grounded and holistic decision-making.
Researchers at McKinsey in 2015 found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. And, similarly, those in the top quarter for gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
We know that what makes us particularly susceptible to Imposter Syndrome is being different to the archetype of the typical successful person in our field. But how does it show up in the workplace? How does it hold people back? And how does it influence the culture of the organisation?
Imposter Syndrome can be crippling; it makes people feel inhibited to speak up or to challenge conventional views, it makes people feel so insecure that they fear exposing what they don’t know and terrified of making mistakes. As a result they keep quiet in meetings and hold back from participating or asking questions, resulting in valuable contributions and opinions being missed (some researchers think up to as much as 50 per cent).
Our research finds that people suffering from Imposter Syndrome, predominately people from under-represented communities, spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy trying to deal with their insecurities and inhibitions in the workplace, time and energy which could otherwise be spent on generative/ productive activity. They are less likely to showcase their abilities, envision themselves in more senior roles or seize opportunities and promotion.
There is a greater chance of losing key talent because many people with Imposter Syndrome will choose to opt out rather than push themselves forward.
Or they will burn out from the exhaustion of trying to be perfect in order to feel ‘worthy’. So what can we do to create more inclusive and supportive organisations? Firstly we need to engage the entire workforce. Everyone needs to be on board to create a culture of inclusivity, sharing and participation.
Share vulnerabilities: As leaders, we need to open up conversations by sharing our own vulnerabilities (personal and professional), recognising that Imposter Syndrome is real and common, and to provide a safe space for people to talk about their challenges and insecurities. These conversations will encourage a psychologically safe environment where authenticity is valued and where self-doubt is normalised.
Provide frequent feedback: Leaders need to frequently provide positive, constructive, evidencebased feedback. They need to make sure they are not making false attributions of competence about people who are very confident, and that they make fair assessments and are mindful of those who are reticent, those whom they suspect suffer from Imposter Syndrome, giving them constructive feedback, and time and encouragement to articulate their opinions. Of course, the lack of real time feedback during the current global coronavirus pandemic for those with Imposter Syndrome has in many cases amplified their sense of isolation and self-doubt, so feedback at this time is particularly important.
Normalise mistakes: Leaders need to address the culture of no mistakes, perfectionism or high performance – to make sure that feedback is calibrated to the normal expectations of where someone is in their role, and that it is natural and necessary to make mistakes in the growth process.
Provide training and coaching: Organisations need to provide formal training and coaching in self-awareness of biases in order to create psychological safety in the environment. They need to raise awareness about Imposter Syndrome and the impact it has on individuals and the organisation as a whole.
Develop meeting strategies: Leaders need to actively leverage their influence over the substance and dynamics of the meetings they hold. They need to embed simple routines and rituals to make meetings more inclusive and expansive. For example, assign a junior to present on a topic or kick off a brainstorming session, or positively reference a quieter member’s input.
Leadership posture and messaging: If the most senior leadership consistently gives the message of the importance of inclusion – both verbally and non verbally – and calls out with consequences to the organisation when it is not happening, then the mind-set across the organisation will start to change. It is leaders who need to address non-inclusive behaviour (speaking over others in a meeting or consistently ignoring the quieter members of the team) and who need to create better practices of inclusion. They need to embed a culture of positive deviation, enabling and encouraging more agility and less homogeneity.
Diversity is a reality. Inclusion is a choice. Without addressing, head on, the issue of Imposter Syndrome in how it relates to underrepresented groups, the success of people who feel marginalised will continue to be threatened in organisations. As individuals, we all can benefit from leaning into our fears and limiting beliefs to understand how our imposter might be holding us back. As leaders, we need to ask ourselves, how do all of my colleagues feel about their work? Do we, as an organisation, support and value them as individuals?
Do they feel safe and nurtured so that they can learn, develop, grow and fulfil their potential within the business? Imposter Syndrome is not only crippling for individuals, but it is a real threat to inclusivity and therefore to the success of an organisation. Let’s work on the behaviours that reinforce and sustain diversity. It will make the workplace feel like a better place for everyone.
Nell Montgomery, Founding Partner. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (UKCP), Executive Coach
Dr Susan Mistler, Managing Partner Americas. Clinical Psychologist, Executive Coach