Is Impostor Syndrome Real?

I have my doubts about Impostor Syndrome. And I worry about women leaders who carry that label around with them.

“Oh, I have that,” is a common refrain when Impostor Syndrome is mentioned among women leaders. Despite advanced degrees and impressive accomplishments, many of these women readily own this diagnosis, which might be the only negative in the lexicon that leaders voluntarily accept.  Doing this can become a hindrance to a woman leader’s self-view and career trajectory. For some, it becomes yet another perceived problem to solve before they can tackle whatever’s really getting in their way. For others, it simply clouds their self-understanding and causes them to hold themselves back.

Originally coined as the Impostor Phenomenon by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978, the current definition of Impostor Syndrome varies as widely as the number of articles and books written on the topic. Most recently, I read an article about chefs with Impostor Syndrome. However, most articles still carry remnants of the original definition: despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people who say they have Impostor Syndrome worry they are frauds and fear failure.

In recent years, I have spoken with hundreds of women across the globe in workshops and coaching sessions about Impostor Syndrome. As I have looked out over packed ballrooms and Zoom meetings, it has become clear to me that all of these women cannot possibly have entered the workplace believing they were fakes, frauds, or incompetents. In fact, when the women in my programs shared their work concerns, none mentioned any of the hallmarks of the original definition of Impostor Phenomenon.

In my twenty-five-year career as an executive coach, only two male clients have said they might have Impostor Syndrome and that was only after hearing I was speaking on the topic. And both were startup rock stars iterating as they went along. Other men have shared their anxieties but have not talked about being impostors.

So, what if you don’t really have Impostor Syndrome? What if something else is causing you to doubt yourself or worry you’re under-qualified? Here are some of the related (but different) core issues women talk about when they bring up Impostor Syndrome and the matching solutions for these issues.

You Are Unfamiliar With The Political Playbook

All women leaders understand that political games are played at work, but they may not know the rules of these games or how to win them. Without a playbook, they may find themselves a step behind or worse, off the team. Just before the pandemic closed down in-person events, one of my clients was at a dinner where two senior male colleagues were advising a third male colleague how to manage his challenging relationship with his boss. While my client found the conversation interesting, she didn’t realize the same advice applied to her relationship with the same boss. When a re-organization occurred, the male colleague who had shifted his behaviors kept his job, and she did not.

I advise all of my coaching clients to develop the ability to diagnose organizational dynamics and develop associated action plans. These skills are not taught in school; you usually learn them on the job. It’s also important to build a robust network of peers and mentors who can serve as advisers as soon as complex interpersonal problems arise.

You Need To Up Your Skill Level And Experience

Women who say they “have” Impostor Syndrome are often referring to the anxiety they experience when they enter a new job, particularly if the role is a stretch. In our hectic workplaces, there is little time to learn but plenty of pressure to get up to speed yesterday.

When I spoke at a women’s professional conference, one of the attendees shared that she had been promoted three times over the course of two years. This meant she had to get to know three different teams and three different roles under three different bosses in short periods of time. She never had a chance to get her bearings in any of the roles, which kept her job satisfaction low and her anxiety high while her performance continued to be exceptional. If I had been her coach, I would have advised her to consider saying “no” to at least one of those new roles so she could gain experience and cement her skills.

If you find yourself promoted without the necessary competencies or experience, do a quick analysis of any skills this new job will require of you. What courses can you take? Who can help you learn and get up to speed quickly? Most people feel anxious in a brand-new job. This does not make you an impostor. It simply means you need more skills and experience.

You Aren’t Receiving Specific Developmental Feedback

Despite increased focus on improving feedback systems in recent years, many leaders still struggle to get concrete input on what they’re already doing well and what more they must do to advance. Without positive or constructive feedback, they may judge themselves as lacking without any evidence. In fact, many of the women I coach minimize their skills and accomplishments due to this lack of feedback. Since they have no way to “benchmark” themselves against other leaders inside or outside of their companies, they are left to imagine the worst.

To develop as a leader, you must push for detailed feedback from your boss and from a wide range of colleagues to give you a full picture of how you are regarded. In addition, I advise all of my coaching clients to interview outside their organizations at least once a year to ensure they know their true value in the marketplace. This interview experience often provides the input and perspective you need to understand your strengths and points of differentiation, even if your direct supervisors fail to provide it. And you might find yourself with a great job offer!

You Don’t Have A Squad

Owning Impostor Syndrome can be a lonely experience. Who do you talk to when you feel uncertain about your performance in your current job? Who do you call when you’re wondering if you should apply for a great new position that someone else might do better? Only when women talk about Impostor Syndrome with their advisers, close colleagues, or at my workshops do they begin to get valuable perspective on what they are actually experiencing. They see that they are not impostors, they’re just isolated. Even those who work among others may feel this way, and they need the support and encouragement of peers, bosses, mentors, and sponsors to discuss concerns and make big moves.

Leave Impostor Syndrome Behind

Put your oxygen mask on first. Sleeping on a regular schedule will work wonders for your energy and spirt. If you can safely walk outside with social distance, get some fresh air and activate your endorphins. Find what distracts you: video games, loud or quiet music, trying a new recipe, viewing exhibits of museums on line. Eat in a healthy way while allowing yourself some comfort food.

Maintain Your Personal Contacts

While most of us are working from home and our socializing is limited, it is helpful to stay in touch with others. Schedule a happy hour/coffee hour on-line with a friend. Make sure to connect via text, email, or phone with at least one or two people every day. One of my friends is in several book clubs and one of her groups will be holding their next meeting on one of the video platforms.

Remember That It Won’t Always Be Like This

Several years ago, when a close relative was ill with a painful undiagnosed illness, a friend told me something I have never forgotten: “It won’t always be like this.” Of course, that didn’t take away the problem that day but it gave me hope for the future. When your fear is increasing, try making this your mantra.

Talk To Someone

Some women leaders truly may actually suffer from intrusive anxiety and would benefit from the guidance of a coach or therapist.  However, for many women who have diagnosed themselves with Impostor Syndrome, it would be worthwhile to realize that your own feelings of uncertainty might stem from something other than something is wrong with you, especially when “normal self-doubt” and “deep-seated fear that you’re a fraud” are such different experiences. If you realize your own feelings of uncertainty might stem from something other than Impostor Syndrome, focus on identifying the actual issue. From there, you can problem-solve and move forward, affording you greater freedom, career satisfaction, and energy to devote to building your future.

Sharon Dougherty
CEO, Priority Coaching

Posted in Uncategorized.