August 29, 2017

Why aren't business leaders talking about imposter syndrome?

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Think of the key qualities of a business leader: strength, decision making, and the ability to inspire others might come to mind. You will probably also recognise that there are other personality types of successful leaders – analytical, dignified, obsessive. Indeed, the subject of what makes a good leader is a complex one, but there are certainly commonalities across the different personas.

One of those commonalities is one we don’t like to discuss: self doubt.

Self-doubt can manifest itself as an actual condition - impostor syndrome. Many successful people can feel that they are not worthy of their position - afraid that sooner or later they will be found out as a fraud. How many? An estimated 70% of us suffer from the phenomenon.

If that is the case, why are so few business leaders talking about it?

The business of impostors

The term “impostor syndrome” was coined in 1978 by two clinical psychologists - Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes. Since then, numerous high profile people have identified with it, admitting that they suffer with the syndrome. From the world of acting, stars like Emma Watson, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Renee Zellweger and Meryl Streep and have all talked about the subject candidly and openly.

You might note that this list is entirely women. It’s perhaps no surprise that women are more emotionally open and willing to be honest and expressive, but there’s something else at play, too. Clinical psychologist Hamira Riaz says: “...women are often expected to downplay their abilities, as they can’t get away with some of the peacocking that you get with successful men.”

Riaz adds that cultural factors may make it harder to notice impostor syndrome in men. “In my experience it’s not natural for men to admit feelings of discomfort and vulnerability. So you have to dig deeper and work a lot harder to get under their skin.”

That doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there, however - both Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington have both talked of their struggles - it means they're more likely to bury the issues rather than deal with them dead on.

Even the celebrated scientist Albert Einstein suffered from it, once saying to a friend: “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.”

But what about the business world?

The business of impostors

Given the abundance of impostor syndrome in other walks of life, it is hard to find any in the world of business. Even though we know impostor syndrome affects high-fliers, business people talking about the issue are in short supply. In an age where content is king and business leaders regularly publish thought leadership articles across all sorts of media, the silence is deafening - but explicable.

One might hazard a guess that business leaders who suffer from impostor syndrome see it as a sign of weakness, and would not want to “go public” with it for fear of losing respect or even share value.

One notable exception in the world of business is Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook who has been open about her sufferings with impostor syndrome. She said: “I force myself to sit at the table, even when I’m not sure I belong there.”

Or perhaps leaders may not want to spread these personal feelings online. That’s one of the reasons our peer advisory groups are such an effective outlet - they offer a safe space to talk about the fears of being a business leader. The worries you have; the problems you face on a daily basis; whatever you’re going through, there will always be someone who has experienced the same. More than that - there will be a group of willing ears to provide guidance. Admitting issues and talking them through is half the battle. And strangely, there may be business benefits too.

A team building study by Google revealed that honest and open teams were the most productive. By hiding key issues, trust and values can be undermined, which can ultimately lead to tension and fracture the team, which in turn will cause productivity blocks. In that spirit, here are twelve ways to stop impostor syndrome from damaging your business - or your mental health.

12 ways to combat impostor syndrome

  1. Recognise that it exists and be open about it.
  2. Say “It’s impostor syndrome” and it immediately becomes a smaller issue.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to “successful” people – and realise that you are one and deserve to be one.
  4. Take action. It is impossible for impostor syndrome to survive when you’re taking action. Taking action proves that you’re not a fraud.
  5. When you receive positive feedback, embrace it and remember it.
  6. Don’t attribute your successes to luck.
  7. Don’t talk about your abilities or successes with words like “just”, “only” or “simply”.
  8. Keep a diary. Writing your successes and failures puts them into perspective.
  9. Recognise that the perfect performer doesn’t exist, and that problems will pop up eventually, whoever you are.
  10. Think about your legacy. Do you want to retire from a career full of opportunities you turned down because you felt you didn’t deserve them?
  11. Be proud of being humble.
  12. Remember that it’s okay to seek help from others, and that even the best leaders do it.

Impostor syndrome is likely to be present in the business leadership community, given its recognised status in the fields of other leaders. The lack of willingness to talk or write about it is concerning, given the ease with which we can make ourselves heard in the digital world.

What is potentially most disturbing is that the extent of the problem is not known. It has not been quantified. So, whilst we might reasonably assume that it exists in some business leaders, based on similar roles in other industries, we don’t know how prevalent it really is in the business world.

A survey might be a start, but the reticence to open up is a real problem. However you're most comfortbale - online, within your team or in a peer advisory group - our advice is to talk.

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Photo credit:

Odd one out via Flickr

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