ELEVATING TO THE NEXT LEVEL
I was telling a friend of mine the other day, how I suffered from imposter syndrome at a point in my career. Have you ever had to ask yourself, what am I doing here? Do I have the capacity to do this job? Will I be well regarded? Am I in over my head? There have been times in my career, when I had to ask myself these questions. Where I felt very inadequate and did not think I was deserving of the positions I had attained nor the accolades that came with these positions. Many women suffer from imposter syndrome.
Let’s unpack what imposter syndrome means. It can be defined, “as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. Research has shown that both men and women experience impostor feelings, and Pauline R. Clance published a paper acknowledging that impostor syndrome is not limited to women. Today, impostor syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes,” says psychologist Audrey Ervin.”
A recent study by the Harvard Business School (HBS), says CEOs who are meant to be known for their confidence, especially because they have made it to the top of their careers suffer from a lack of confidence (imposter syndrome) in their ability to perform their roles as CEOs.
The Leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder conducted a survey of 402 CEOs from 11 countries who together run companies with $2.6 trillion in sales.
CEOs who participated anonymously, told those who conducted the survey that they did not feel ready for the strategic and business aspects of their roles, they felt much less prepared for the personal and interpersonal components of leadership, which are just as critical to success.
Here are some of the most surprising findings, HBS said:
• 68% acknowledged that, they felt they weren’t fully prepared to take on the CEO role.
• 50% said driving culture change was more difficult than they’d anticipated.
• 48% said that finding time for themselves and for self-reflection was harder than expected.
• 47% said that developing their senior leadership team was surprisingly challenging.
It was reported that one of them remarked that: “When you become the final decision maker, everything changes. It’s hard to train on this.” What is also evident is that they suffered from a lot of self-doubt. Despite the fact that they had several years of experience and had reached the zenith of their careers based on competence and management and their Board thinking they were deserving of the role. Many of them still lacked confidence and doubted their ability to get the job done. If CEO’s feel this way, you then wonder how others down the ladder will feel.
Impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young, who is the author of a book on the subject, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, has also found patterns in people who experience impostor feelings, she said these are:
• “Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.
• “Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.
• When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.
• “Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.
• “Supermen” or “superwomen” push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something. This last one, described me to a T. I beat myself up mercilessly, if I made a mistake. I beat myself much more than by bosses did, because I felt I had to be perfect in everything I did and any small mistake was magnified as a big failure on my part.
So, how can we overcome imposter syndrome. Ervin says, “one of the first steps to overcoming impostor feelings is to acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. “Simply observing that thought as opposed to engaging it” can be helpful, says Ervin. “We can help teach people to let go and more critically question those thoughts. She encourages her clients to ask ‘Does that thought help or hinder me?’”
You can also reframe your thoughts. Young says she reminds people that the only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges. “People who don’t feel like impostors are no more intelligent or competent or capable than the rest of us,” Young says. “It’s very good news, because it means we just have to learn to think like non-impostors.” Learning to value constructive criticism, believing you are deserving of the role, understanding that you’re actually slowing your team down when you don’t ask for help, or remembering that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it can all help and from me, understanding that you can make mistakes because you are only human.
Let me conclude with the words of Caroline Dowd-Higgins, who says: “Self-confidence is attainable. Expand your comfort zone incrementally toward a stretch goal. Baby steps will allow you to truly own what you do well and learn to turn off the negative mental self-talk that often surfaces and gives you a feeling of imposter syndrome.” She says you can reprogram your brain to also believe that you do these things really well and deserve it. Take time to enjoy your strengths and don’t set unrealistic goals of perfection. Celebrate what you’ve already done well and can do well.”