by Prof Owen Skae, Rhodes Business School


The imposter syndrome


I was recently involved in a leadership development programme with young professionals ranging from junior to middle to senior management. All three groups spoke about the challenges they faced when they entered the work environment and all three groups expressed how they experienced bouts of Imposter Syndrome.

I knew of the syndrome but the fact that all three groups mentioned it independently of each other led me to interesting research on it. It was notable to discover that all of us go through this phenomenon at some stage of our lives and given the complexity of a transitioning society that includes the rise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Generation Z, with young people questioning where the world of work is going, how they fit in and how to plot their career paths, it is important for leaders in all spheres to take note of this.

Leaders themselves might even experience the imposter syndrome themselves, or members of their team, younger and older, might be experiencing it and they need to know how to address it and how to mentor people to cope with it.

Firstly we need to appreciate that while the iterations of the imposter syndrome change over time, the phenomenon is not new. It was named decades back, and articles on it, such as one from 1978 in the American journal Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, remain relevant today. Titled The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention it is by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes of Georgia State University. They found from their clinical experience it happened less frequently or with less intensity in men.

It would have been seminal thinking at the time when a new wave of high achieving women were attempting to break the glass ceiling or ascend the glass cliff. In the abstract Clance and Imes write: The term impostor phenomenon is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.

The feeling of ‘phoniness’ women describe in the article leads to heightened stress and anxiety that you are not good enough or skilled enough or intelligent enough to be there, that you somehow slipped through the cracks and that everyone except you, knows what to do. There is never one diagnostic category but in most cases even the most highly qualified women with outstanding graduate and professional qualifications then and now, express a feeling of general depression and frustration that they are not able to meet their own self-imposed standards of perfection and end up imposing huge pressures on themselves that go beyond the call of duty. All in the name of the fear of failure that you are going to be outed one day as a phoney.

Early family history has a lot to do with it, but irrespective of whether girls were raised to believe they were super bright, or not as bright as their siblings, imposter syndrome is prevalent. This, in turn, points to the impact of broader social prejudices. Clance and Imes write: We do believe that the societal stereotype of women being less able intellectually than men begins to exacerbate and confirm at an early age …The women’s own self-image of being a phony is consonant with the societal view that women are not defined as being competent. If a woman does well, it cannot be because of her ability but must be because of some fluke.

That was the seventies but the syndrome is still widely felt in our society where we cannot underestimate the extent to which it is felt in situations of both gender and equity, by virtue of the fact that both are still breaking through thick glass ceilings created by centuries of status quo, notably white males who in the past by virtue of their position in society felt comfortable in their roles and were adept at ‘winging it’.

If you are in a leadership role and committed to recognising and addressing negative issues, it is imperative to understand the complexity of this syndrome. Even when people have no reason to feel like they do, and there is clear evidence to back this up, people who have the imposter syndrome simply don’t believe they have no reason to doubt themselves.

The focus of this research has mainly been on women and what is also interesting is that where women are able to break through the glass ceiling it is beneficial to society and paves the way for other women, which makes it all the more important for women to be aware of the pervasiveness of the imposter syndrome and to learn how to push through it. In the US Congress for example, in the recent mid-term elections, an unprecedented 110 women were elected to congress. Research confirms that women politicians are far more likely to sponsor legislation and pass laws that benefit women in the workplace. Working women characteristically send money back into their communities.

This brings me back to the young professionals on the leadership development programme, male and female, who all expressed the same imposter syndrome feelings. My reference is another very interesting article published in 2019 in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour titled: I must have slipped through the cracks somehow: An examination of coping with perceived impostorism and the role of social support.

The authors are Richard G. Gardner (Lee Business School, University of Nevada), Jeffrey S. Bednar, Bryan W. Stewart and James B. Oldroyd (all Marriott School of Business, Brigham Young University), and Joseph Moore (Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford University).

They looked at 20 professionals in training, high performing college students who were accepted onto an undergraduate accounting programme. They explained that when they started competing with an impressive peer group they started to feel like imposters.

The authors write: For these professionals in training, the experience of being an impostor weighed on their psyche and, in some cases, made it difficult to perform in their program and gain the requisite knowledge and understanding they needed to be competent professionals in the future. As a result, we examined the coping strategies these professionals in training used to deal with these challenging perceptions of being an impostor. The most prominent coping strategies that emerged from our data analysis were: 1) adjusting identity standards and reference groups; 2) cognitive escapes (in both beneficial and detrimental ways); 3) masking; 4) giving social support; and 5) seeking social support.

I’m going to focus on 5) seeking social support. The authors explain: This form of coping occurred when individuals would go to someone else for emotional support or help with their school work. In some cases, the students would go to individuals outside their peers in the programme for support [including programme professors, family or friends] which we coded as “reaching out”.

They juxtaposed this with “reaching in” when individuals reached into their peer group in the programme for support. The participants’ discourse was then analysed for evidence of how it influenced their perceptions of impostorism and whether it helped them to cope better.

The results are described by the authors:

We found that most descriptions of ‘reaching out’ for social support appeared to be positive (10 out of 15 were categorised as reducing perceptions of impostorism).

However, most descriptions of ‘reaching in’ for social support from peers inside the programme, were described with ambivalence or even negativity (12 out of 14 were categorised as maintaining or amplifying perceptions of impostorism).

So what to do about it? I refer to a Feb 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review titled Mentoring Someone with Imposter Syndrome. The authors are W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith.

W. Brad Johnson, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty

Associate at Johns Hopkins University. David G. Smith, PhD, is a professor of sociology in the Department of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College.

They emphasise that the imposter syndrome is a widespread issue, including amongst famous people who have expressed these feelings. In the workplace context it is important to discuss the syndrome and provide mentorship support.

They write: Nearly all of us have felt like imposters at one time or another … For most of us, these imposter moments are transient - often most acute immediately after accepting a promotion, starting a new job or entering a workplace in which our minority status is obvious. For some, imposter feelings become more pervasive and begin to hinder performance.

They explain that mentors need to be attuned to the imposter syndrome, the scale of worries that accompany this and be quick to counter them with copious doses of affirmation and encouragement:

With good humour and grace, the wise mentor seeks opportunities to express belief in a mentee, reminding them that they do belong and are in fact competent. This is an also an excellent opportunity to review their progress and milestone achievements. Remember that there are two dimensions of affirmation. First, affirm your mentees as human beings, acknowledging their inherent worth, accepting them without condition. Second, affirm them as professionals, persistently calling out their achievements and celebrating them.

They add that mentors need to proactively counter stereotypes of gender and race, which has repeatedly resulted in the marginalisation of women and people of colour:

When marginalised at work they don’t just feel like imposters; they are made to feel like imposters, regardless of how self-assured, smart, and confident they are. Research reveals that the resulting performance anxiety can be mitigated by reminding your mentee that key tasks are not affected by gender or race and helping them to develop high self-efficacy in their work… Share your own imposter stories: If you’re like most people, you’ve had imposter feelings at different moments in life and career. Tell your mentee about it! Nothing is so uplifting to an imposter than the epiphany of discovering that a respected mentor and role model also has wrestled — and perhaps, continues to wrestle — the dragon of imposter anxiety and managed to endure.

They further emphasise that as you mentor you must guard against your mentee giving you the credit for their success. Women are especially likely to attribute success to luck or their teammates, or credit mentors for achievements while downplaying their own talent and achievement.

When this happens, they advise that you highlight in no uncertain terms how they deserve the lion’s share of credit and explain why.

If you want to be an excellent mentor, start by assuming that most of your mentees will, at one time or another, suffer bouts of self-doubt and imposter anxiety. With patience, warmth, and steady affirmation help your mentees to see themselves through your eyes.

This is an important and powerful message, as is the concept of reaching out as opposed to reaching in to start overcoming the imposter syndrome, which is far more prevalent in all organisations than many leaders are aware.

Professor Owen Skae, Director of Rhodes Business School

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