As leaders, we face many challenges. Often times they’re operational, financial, or are to some degree, external challenges. Sometimes though our greatest challenges can come from within.
In 1978 Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes published "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women" In it, is described the phenomenon of someone perceiving intellectual phoniness or fraudulence within themselves.
Over time more has been understood about this condition, now often referred to as Imposter Syndrome, and the types of people it affects.
The Imposter Cycle
Someone suffering from Imposter Syndrome receives a task or project and works through it in one of two ways. They procrastinate and then rush the task at its conclusion, or they overprepare, spending excess time on it.
When the project is completed both groups dismiss any positive praise they receive. Procrastinators attribute success to “getting lucky”; over-workers consider success the result of brute force, rather than skill.
It’s this behaviour that creates a sense in the individual that they can be “found out.” They’re not suitable to head a project, manage a team or lead a company because they rely on luck or excessive work to achieve goals, rather than skill.
Who is Affected?
Since 1978, multiple studies have confirmed findings and refined the understanding of Imposter Syndrome. It is often a by-product of depression or anxiety in individuals.
As indicated in Clance and Imes’ article, although anyone can be affected by the syndrome, it is seen in greater numbers amongst high achievers and leaders. This is to be expected. The pressures of leadership and the dependence of multiple groups can compound the doubts and malign self-perceptions associated with the syndrome.
Research at Georgia University indicates that men and women experience imposter syndrome in approximately equal measures, with women afflicted slightly more as in general with anxiety conditions. Meanwhile, research by Jane Roskowski shows that each gender experiences Imposter Syndrome in different ways. For female leaders, it manifests as an inability to measure personal skill except by outperforming others. Male leaders experience it as fear or shame, of being found to fall short of an expected level of quality.
Are You an Imposter?
Self-doubt and trepidation are normal things to feel in small doses. They form part of the brain’s preservation mechanics, forcing you to make assessments regarding risk and acting according to best interests in personal and professional settings.
The absence of doubt isn’t confidence, it’s recklessness.
The difference between those afflicted with Imposter Syndrome, and imposters, is that imposters don’t doubt themselves, they already know they’re imposters. The similarity between the imposter and the sufferer of Imposter Syndrome is a reliance on silence.
Real imposters must remain silent, otherwise, their deception is revealed. Imposter Syndrome sufferers maintain silence for fear that discussing their thoughts and feelings will be met with revelation. But in order to break the imposter cycle, you must break the silence.
It isn’t a weakness to talk about the doubt and uncertainty you feel sometimes as an individual or as a leader, it is a strength. It shows that you place value on the work being done and understand the consequences of that work being done poorly.
Whether it is informally with colleagues, as part of a coaching program, in a session with a therapist or in a discussion with a mentor, being open and honest about your doubts is the first step to allaying them.
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