Imposter Syndrome: The Other Side of Being a Talented Leader
Impostor Syndrome has been rightly dubbed as the “workplace anxiety du jour”. To me, it can show up as a barrier to an emerging leader’s performance, rather than a lack of skill set, experience or training.
Looking back at my own career, I have had the fortune of holding leadership positions in many high growth companies. Interestingly, I got opportunistically hired into most of these roles, rather than applying to open positions. Every time I would get a role, I would wonder if I would have been able to get it, if the role was to be formally published with many qualified candidates competing for it. Needless to say, I have faced imposter syndrome many times in life—before joining a new job, while getting promoted or sometimes even when someone appreciated me—only to later realize that feeling like an imposter is completely okay, if you know how to overcome it.
Over time, I have come to observe that imposter syndrome is very common among high performers because they hold themselves to high standards and many times experience low self-esteem due to insecurities about their own capabilities. They feel that they don’t deserve to be where they are and constantly fear that they will be soon outed.
Are We All Imposters?
To an extent, yes!
Chronic imposters constantly feel that their success is a bluff and an outcome of their luck. They feel that there are many people out there who are better suited for the job or are much more capable than they are.
Do you do any of these?
Undermine your achievements often
Try to avoid feedback because you think you might be outed
Overburden yourself with work, to the point of burnout
Feel you don’t deserve it constantly
If yes, you could be feeling the imposter syndrome. Remember that if you are going through self-doubt, then this self-perceived phoniness and feeling like an imposter is quite common, especially among leaders.
Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, an executive coach, psychoanalyst, and management scholar, in his article “The Dangers of Feeling like a Fraud” points out that “Often, a leader’s feelings of self-doubt and anxiety are less pressing when they are lower on the totem pole […] But once a leader becomes the CEO, everything they do is highly visible. They are expected to stand on their own.” So essentially, the feeling that you are an imposter can continue to rise as you grow in your career.
In my previous organization, I started as the Managing Director of our India business. I was then promoted to lead the Global Operations which was a bigger responsibility with a larger budget and potential for much higher impact. Naturally, my imposter syndrome hit me hard. I remember spending many days thinking if I really deserved this promotion and if I would ever succeed at my role!
The good news is that with time, I was able to overcome my insecurities. In fact, I also learnt to change the feeling of an imposter to build positive pressure on myself, which in turn helped me to elevate my performance at work.
Is Your Imposter Syndrome Your Personal Problem?
No, a leader’s imposter syndrome impacts the entire organization.
The feeling of self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, basically anything and everything that characterizes imposter syndrome can adversely effect your team by reducing clarity and morale.
Imposters often tend to be as tough on others—especially their teams—as they are on themselves. This can lead to increase in employee turnover rates, absenteeism, and lack of employee morale.
Leaders with a high level of imposter syndrome can also impact the quality of decision making in an organization. They don’t trust their instinct and this can trickle down in the company, leading to negative outcomes such as lack of innovation and experimentation.
Fortunately, as leaders we can combat the negative impacts of imposter syndrome on ourselves, our teams and the company. An organizational culture revamp can actually help you and your teams to start embracing your success and failure alike.
Be Vulnerable and Let Your Team Be Vulnerable Too!
Vulnerability creates a safe and open space to experiment and fail. This will reverse the impact of imposter syndrome. Have emotionally open conversations with your team. Ensure that these conversations result in solutions and not just panic and stress.
Create a Culture of Collaborative Learning
Leaders should create a culture of learning from each other. Inviting your team members to ask questions can be the beginning for this.
Create a Culture for Inclusion
A culture of inclusion helps people to speak up and share their fears without feeling the dangers of being attacked. Training your team to offer constructive criticism is a way of boosting inclusion. For example, when people of color don’t find leaders who look like them, then imposter syndrome kicks in. It’s natural, but as a leader you need to create that space where they feel safe and secure.
Beat the Imposter Syndrome
High performing leaders are highly likely to face imposter syndrome. In a way, your strength becomes your weakness. Leverage your vulnerability and prioritize problem-solving to ensure that you own the success you have earned.
Do you feel like an imposter sometimes? What do you do to overcome it for yourself and for your team?