Researchers approximate that 70% of the population experiences impostor syndrome, though our indication is that it is higher, particularly among high-performing leaders. Impostor syndrome is an area where participants in our BOLD leadership program report at least a 60% reduction in self-doubt in less than four months.
Do You Have Impostor Syndrome?
- Have a track record of being successful, and taking on increasingly challenging tasks and assignments?
- Wonder if you can continue to be successful given the level of change, complexity and difficult circumstances you face?
- Want to increase confidence and demonstrate a stronger executive presence?
- Feel like others know more than you or that you have to prove yourself?
- Include others for input (more than necessary) before making decisions?
- Overthink, overanalyze, over prepare or second guess yourself?
- Ruminate over what you could, would or should have done differently?
- Double and triple check to ensure deliverables (including simple emails) are perfect?
- Fear commenting or asking questions in meetings because you might appear uninformed, ineffective or simply not smart enough?
- Rarely say no?
If you answered yes to one or more of the questions above, you may be experiencing some of the common factors of impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostorism) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Individuals experience chronic feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident competence and success.
It is a misnomer to label ourselves as having impostor syndrome as it is rare for a leader to feel inadequate all the time. It is much more realistic for leaders to be confident about certain parts of their role, and less confident about others, such as new situations (both professional and personal) or tasks they haven’t faced before; or highly visible, challenging, complex or risky tasks.
Pinpointing specifically where you have doubt makes it
easier to clarify and focus needs, coaching or support.
As one CEO recently admitted, he was confident about the majority of his role. Where he felt anxiety and self-doubt was around three priorities where he had risk and ambiguity: leading through Covid given changing regulations; managing a challenging acquisition; and aligning his Board around a complicated initiative they didn’t initially support.
It is common for women leaders to assume men are immune from self-doubt, which is never the case with high-performing leaders who want to constantly learn and grow. Men experience impostorism, too. What is different is how men and women internalize doubt.
When men have doubt, they often see it as a feeling to manage, and then channel that feeling into an action to take. Women will frequently embody, personalize and incorporate the doubt into their very identity. The internal dialogue of anxiety, fear, judgment and “not enough” usually runs deep. Our data shows that women will still take action in spite of the doubt, yet the actions they take often fall short of their actual BOLD capabilities.
Doubt about a new role, leadership challenge, task or action is common for everyone (especially now), as leaders never feel comfortable all the time. BOLD leaders do, however, get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. They realize and remember they are not alone, and seek coaching early and often to help them navigate the next hill to climb.
The Good News About Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome is like wine: have too much, and you feel incapacitated, with negative effects the next day (amplified if you do it on a daily basis). On the other hand, enjoying a glass with dinner adds flavor and texture, and can deepen the experience. The difference between the two? Moderation.
When BOLD leaders practice moderation they are:
- HUMBLE: Overarching confidence can appear arrogant and often occurs in the least qualified individuals. When we put our strengths and our opportunities in perspective, it makes us relatable and often connects us to others.
- CURIOUS: As continuous learners, we focus on new ways to grow, exemplify a growth mindset (versus I guess that’s just how I am), and are coach-able.
- VULNERABLE: When we pull down the veil of I’m fine and really disclose, we connect at a deeper level which allows us to inspire others and reduce our impostorism through the very act of admitting to it.
The word “syndrome” stems from the Greek meaning to run together. Let’s break down what runs together in impostor syndrome so you can assess and, ultimately, act differently:
1. MINDSET: Without mastering our mindset, our inner voice (or Itty Bitty Shi**y Committee) is in charge. Designed to protect us, the “Vicious Voice” in the Committee chatters (or screams) like a scrolling stock ticker across our brain’s screen: Don’t speak up, you’ll look stupid…your question will slow things down and make you look stupid…you will be the only one who doesn’t know …triple check, rewrite, reread to be safe, etc.
BOLD leaders realize there is another voice: their guiding or wise voice. This is who talks to us like a best friend, mentor or someone who loves us by putting things in perspective, reminding us who we are, and clarifying the next best step to take: SAY IT! ASK IT!…they probably didn’t think of that…there are surely others who don’t know, etc.
BOLD leaders learn to manage their internal dialogue so they can
BE their best selves and CONTRIBUTE to their fullest potential.
2. EMOTIONS: Emotions (feelings) are reactions to the thoughts we think. The four basic emotions are happiness, sadness, fear and anger. The more aware we are of our emotions, the more we can consciously choose how to respond to them versus unconsciously reacting to them. This is simple, yet not easy, and in BOLD leadership, we practice how to do this.
TIP: Start by paying attention to the physical sensations you have when you consider speaking up, giving feedback, or anything else out of your comfort zone. Everyone has physical sensations in reaction to fear or anger such as sweaty palms, nausea, red face, shaky voice, palpitating heart, etc. These signs are the body’s real-time way of indicating emotion. When you begin to feel it in your body, pause, breathe and ask yourself what you are feeling. You can then choose to retreat and play it safe (your brain’s goal in survival mode) or, as a BOLD leader, you can consciously manage your comfort zone.
BOLD leaders know there is a difference between HOW
they are feeling and WHAT they ultimately choose.
3. BEHAVIORS: For every behavior, there is a feeling (and thought) behind it. Behaviors and actions are what we DO. The greater our self-awareness of thoughts and emotions, the better we can consciously choose actions versus being driven (or paralyzed) by the Vicious Voice. If you are worried and overthinking, try the following:
- Pause: Taking deep breaths allows you to return to rational thought.
- Ask yourself: What am I feeling? (stressed)…What am I worried about? (looking stupid, not being good enough, failing, being taken off the project, etc.)
- Let your Guiding Voice take over: You have so much to offer! Set aside time to prepare and trust yourself.
- Let the rest of the unnecessary chatter go: This is possible with practice!
BOLD leaders practice their way through discomfort by understanding
their thoughts and emotions, and identifying what they can
tangibly shift to be bold and trust themselves.
Remember, when mindset, emotion and behaviors no longer run together, you can consciously create and choose how to engage.
- When I’m outside my comfort zone, what physical sensations do I have? What feelings are these sensations reflecting?
- Where do I feel the most doubt right now? What is the biggest shift needed in my thoughts? Emotions? Behaviors?
- What support (if any) do I need to make this happen?
These questions can apply to all leaders, regardless of role or gender, and to all teams or families.
Please reach out and my team if you’d like to connect about how to apply these ideas, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenges you are facing today.
Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health.
Remember to find resources to inspire you here.
Yours in practice,