Helping people overcome Imposter Syndrome
Have you noticed that the term Imposter Syndrome arises in conversations more often these days? Although it has become part of the vernacular, a clear definition of what it means is less available. And how to deal with it remains somewhat obscure.
People with Imposter Syndrome (IS) believe they are not up to the task or the challenges they face. It is a self-perception and, as such, has a subjective nature. It starts affecting people who believe they come short when they measure ‘who they think we are’ against ‘who they believe they should be.’ As they listen to incessant internal messages about their inadequacies, those afflicted with IS believe they are not ‘good enough.’ There is no formal diagnostic. People can be affected by self-doubts on a broad spectrum, from mild to debilitating. This condition's subjective nature does not limit the severity of its impact.
Researchers have recently uncovered the opposite condition called the Dunning–Kruger effect, where people seem largely unaware of their deficiencies. Competency gaps lead them to make repeated mistakes, and their lack of awareness prevents them from recognizing and correcting them. The obverse in many ways of the exaggerated doubts brought by IS, the Dunning-Kruger condition brings people to believe there is no limit to what they can do: if given a chance, they can power through anything when they put their mind to it.
The lack of self-awareness is at the root of both these conditions: the first leads to overlooking what they do right, and the second does not allow them to see what they do wrong.
Who experiences Imposter Syndrome?
The following patterns can help recognize people experiencing Imposter Syndrome:
1. They are overly critical of their performance and tend to diminish their contributions.
2. There is a perceivable gap between what they demonstrate they can achieve and what they give themselves credit for.
3. They feel an unwarranted level of dissatisfaction with their performance.
4. Over time, they display low self-esteem that eventually translates into a lack of confidence and energy.
5. They set unrealistically high standards for themselves and then become overly critical of their performance.
It is surprisingly widespread. Large-scale surveys report that between 60 and 80% of leaders experience Imposter Syndrome at one point or another in their careers. Paradoxically, high achievers appear to be particularly prone to experiencing Imposter Syndrome. The most likely explanation is that they have high aspirations and can be severely critical of their performance to the extent that it erodes their self-confidence.
Employees may be reluctant to disclose their beliefs that they have Imposter Syndrome because they fear negative social or professional repercussions. They may not know that many around them feel the same way. Younger workers appear more vocal about their struggles with Imposter Syndrome, but more senior or experienced people are less open on the subject.
Although surveys mention that Imposter Syndrome affects a broad cross-section of both genders, women and members of minority or marginalized groups are reportedly more affected.
What are the causes of Imposter Syndrome?
Someone can experience the Imposter Syndrome for various reasons, including someone's upbringing and background. For instance, unsupportive comments by a parent can leave an indelible imprint that eventually turns into a sense of inadequacy, contributing to the emergence of Imposter Syndrome. Some research identifies one of the main causes stemming from voices they have heard from their parents or others, sometimes early in their lives. Other experiences may have left a mark that leads them to question themselves.
People with whom I discuss this topic as an executive coach often see the cause as related to demanding or critical parents who did not support their aspirations. Once the resulting doubts are embedded into one’s way of thinking, it becomes a mindset or a habitual cognitive bent that is difficult to debunk. People often claim they get stuck repeatedly playing a tape, saying: "I'm incapable of doing this. I'm faking it the best I can."
The life experience of those who experience IS often brings them to believe that there are limits to their capabilities beyond which they can’t grow. Carol Dueck has extensively researched the distinction between a ‘growth’ and a ‘fixed’ mindset: those with a growth mindset believe anyone can grow with the right intent and support. In contrast, those with a fixed mindset believe people have innate abilities they can’t enhance.
What is the potential impact of experiencing Imposter Syndrome?
People with IS often feel the need to over-work and over-deliver on projects to avoid being found out. While some research suggests IS might sometimes help motivate people to achieve, there is also ample evidence that the stress it generates can be so draining that it places intense pressure on their mental health. Some researchers report that individuals afflicted by IS are more likely to burn out. And the folks who burn out are more likely to suffer from IS.
Even though Imposter Syndrome is a subjective, self-induced condition, it can significantly impact individuals when it evolves to the more acute end of the spectrum. In the end, the impact is to suppress one’s potential. The author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome, Clare Josa, explains that this link between IS and burnout stems from the demands high achievers place on themselves with an unforgiving attitude toward what they see as a less-than-perfect performance. Josa concludes from her research that “IS is one of the most important predictors of whether someone is at risk of burnout.”
Even when they are perceived by many around them as high achievers, people afflicted with IS generally underestimate their competence and ability to perform. They attribute the success they might have to luck or hard work rather than ability. This limiting self-perception and the fear of failure often lead them to avoid reaching for roles they are qualified to assume.
What to do about it?
It isn’t easy to realize the mindset shift required to supplant IS with a positive affirmation of one’s full potential. Given the self-sealed nature of the IS cognitive loop, engaging in conversations with a highly trusted individual who can ask questions is essential to enhance self-awareness gradually.
Of course, the person experiencing IS has to own the ‘decanting’ process, but having people ask the right questions from different perspectives will likely have the most chance of success.
Here are examples of what can be done to surpass this mindset.
As the individual experiencing this effect…
Recognize the limiting impact of IS and resolve to overcome it – stay positive and aim to realize greater confidence and energy. Reframe your thinking by calling your project something like “realizing my full potential.”
Enhance your self-awareness of the voices that emerge in you and draw you away from your goal – once you hear these voices, gently set them aside and replace them with an affirmation of what you can achieve.
What disabling stories do I repeat to myself? How can I recognize and set them aside?
What is ‘actually’ going on? Am I performing well? Is there any reality to the doubts and the resulting sense of inadequacy that overwhelms me from time?
How do I identify fleeting feelings that undermine my confidence?
How do I revoke fleeting feelings that I don’t deserve to succeed?
Notice when people comment positively about your work: accept and give credence to their comments (instead of dismissing them).
Seek out people you respect and engage them in conversations that will reinforce your aspirations – in particular, seek out people who think you are more capable than you think you are.
Gradually become more comfortable in recognizing, affirming and leveraging your strengths.
Listen to people around you who have experienced doubts but have surmounted them to realize their goals.
Avoid measuring yourself against some unrealistic ideal.
as their manager.
Go out of your way to provide positing feedback knowing it will be initially discounted.
Provide assignments demonstrating their capabilities and keep encouraging them when facing challenges.
Gently question their negative views on their performance. Balance out their negative performance assessments with your observations on where they have made significant contributions.
Comment on how others see their work.
When they comment negatively about their performance, emphasize their contribution and characterize challenges as excellent learning opportunities. Discuss and validate their learnings.
If ‘imposter’ thoughts arise, focus the conversation on their strengths. Engage them in a reflective discussion about they see their strengths.
It is essential for these people to hear counter-vailing voices to balance out. They might short-change themselves if they don't hear more positive voices about their capability at the right time.
Help them put in perspective that everyone you work with has areas of strength and flatter sides. In this context, work with them to identify specific skills they need to improve to complement their strengths.
… as their coach
Help them recognize their strengths and what they are good at.
Ask them questions aimed at improving self-awareness:
Tell me about a time when you experienced success: what went right?
Tell me about a time when you genuinely helped someone with something no one else could figure out.
What are situations that activate a sense of inadequacy within you?
What standards do you apply to yourself that could be unreasonable?
Is it possible for you to ask yourself difficult questions and feel vulnerable but stay connected to who you truly are?
Work with them to hold up a mirror providing a more accurate view of their performance.
Get them to see how the IS habitual loop has produced a state of unrelenting dissatisfaction but has become a comfort zone for them.
Guide them to reframe their IS mindset…
by identifying what makes them truly capable;
by recognizing when they are stuck in the IS self-reinforcing loop;
by developing the self-awareness that will neutralize the disabling thoughts that come up and replace them with confident thinking that energizes them;
Help them build an action plan to move forward in this direction with clarity and confidence.
Imposter syndrome is experienced on a spectrum of acuity; less severe conditions can be addressed by the person who becomes more self-aware. But a more acute version can benefit from a coach who can ask questions that can pierce through the self-reinforcing loop this condition can create in one’s mind.
How to Help High Achievers Overcome Imposter Syndrome Morela Hernandez, Christina Lacerenza MIT Sloan Management Review, March 202
Clare Josa, author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome
Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., Bernadette Dunne, et al., author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success