I was intrigued recently when I heard a senior banker divulge her fear of being “outed” as a fraud following her promotion to the exec team. She was talking to more junior bankers as part of a leadership program, so there was a sense that they were looking to her to have some replicable wisdom for the “up and coming”.
I admired her courage to do the unexpected.
She described fretting that someone would barge into her office, expel her instantly and expose her as the unworthy imposter she thought herself to be.
Imposter syndrome has been around for sometime now. It has been widely documented as a common experience especially among high achievers and it’s estimated that about 70% of people experience it at some stage in their life. You are particularly vulnerable to these feelings when you start a new role, however this can happen at any stage of your career.
The social entrepreneur
A young social entrepreneur also confided in me on a separate occasion that he was questioning whether he belonged in an organisation of brilliant and socially minded colleagues. From the outside it was obvious he did and was just finding his feet. Yet I could identify with the pressure to perform and that sense of scrambling to keep up when everyone around you seems like a genius.
It’s easy to become paralysed and start critiquing everything you say. Your head is filled with a running commentary:
“that was a dumb thing to say, now they can see the mistake they made”.
You can become excruciatingly self-conscious of everything you do. The social entrepreneur talked of feeling like he was wearing masks and that the pressure to keep them up created more and more distance.
Brene Brown in her much loved and watched TED talk and book on vulnerability urges us to let down our masks…
For leaders this has to be balanced with context and timing. A recent article in Harvard Business Review talks of when leaders play too much to being authentic and undermine themselves and erode the confidence of their teams. For me the complexity is this; do you have the wisdom to know when to show vulnerability and with whom? Can you balance that with a bit of “fake it til you make it?”.
What can we do about our imposter syndrome?
Practise self-acceptance. Recognise that you are in great company. Meryl Streep, for example, who has won the most Academy Awards and Golden Globes in history said in an interview:
“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
Remind yourself that the fact that you are experiencing this means you have taken a step to do something significant, which often involves feeling uncomfortable.
Diffuse from your thoughts. There are many techniques to do this but essentially you are learning to look at your thoughts rather than from them. To create some space between you and your thoughts and not to fuse with them as though they are 100% true.
I practise inserting the phrase “I notice I’m having the thought that….” in front of my running mental commentary. This usually lessens the impact of the thought.
Unfortunately our threat response seems to be activated as we become more successful and yes you are often in daunting (and inspiring) company. So we can hide away and put on our well-constructed masks or realise our common sense of humanity.
And the bankers’ favourite part of the program – feeling reassured that the senior leader felt the same way they did and was just normal. She was prone to the same internal chatter that we all are.