You might have heard of imposter syndrome, but it needs a bit of myth-busting. “It’s not self-doubt, it’s not ‘just a women’s thing’, and it’s not just about ‘thinking happy thoughts,’” said Jacqui Barratt, CEO and founder of recruitment company Salt, borrowing the words of Dr Terri Simpkin, an academic who has spent the last four years researching this common feeling and how to reduce it in the workplace.
Lissy Puno, a counselling psychologist and Barratt’s fellow panellist at Campaign’s Women Leading Change conference yesterday in Singapore, added a couple more untruths she wants to dispel: “Imposter syndrome is not a mental disorder. It is an experience most people have when faced with a task or challenge they feel they might not be able to cope with or efficiently complete.” Puno also points out that rather than being a permanent state of affairs, imposter syndrome comes in cycles, and different people experience it in different ways.
“imposter syndrome is where we doubt our accomplishments,” said Barratt. “It’s that fear of feeling like a fraud”.
To prove just how widespread this ‘condition’ is, Barratt asked the Women Leading Change audience to stand up if they had ever felt uncomfortable negotiating pay or rewards, even when they knew they deserved it. The vast majority of the people in the room got to their feet.
Backing this up, Barratt quoted a recent Salt research project that asked the same question to 30,000 men and women. The results suggested that men felt less awkward than women in such a pay-negotiation situation — 74% of men “strongly agreed” that they felt comfortable asking for what they are worth compared to 51% of women — but these figures also highlight the large proportion of both genders who aren’t happy asking for what they are worth, a classic symptom of imposter syndrome.
In terms of the origin of the condition, Puno says there’s a “long list”. In her work as a relationship therapist, she frequently sees connections to imposter syndrome from people’s earliest childhood experiences, including their family dynamic or the parenting style they grew up with.
Once someone experiences that “moment of doubt” that we label 'imposter syndrome', there are usually two responses. The first is to procrastinate, and the second is to over-prepare and aspire to perfectionism.
“In our socialisation process as young people, there are many messages we receive that take root in our minds as a set of rules — ‘shoulds’, ‘have tos’, ‘musts’ that other people have determined for us,” said Puno. These play into our sense of value and worth. “When we become adults, we want to set a new group of rules or messages in our minds in order for us to feel worthy and valued.”
Imposter syndrome can come about when we are not getting the message about our own value through to ourselves. This obviously has an impact on individuals, but also on wider organisations: “It’s stripping people of potential and achievement and robbing workplaces of talent,” said Barratt, again quoting Simpkin.
Puno says that once someone experiences that “moment of doubt” that we label imposter syndrome, there are usually two responses. The first is to procrastinate, and the second is to over-prepare and aspire to perfectionism. The latter can be particularly harmful to someone’s mental health because it can lead to continuous working and potential burnout. “Both might not be healthy because both produce stress,” she says. Imposter syndrome blocks productivity and people’s ability to relate to others, which in turn reduces engagement in the workplace and may see people leave their jobs in pursuit of a different experience.
So how do you get over it? First of all, identify that imposter syndrome is what you are experiencing by watching out for “the cycle”, as Puno puts it. You’re given a task or project and you start to feel anxious and filled with dread about your ability to complete it. Then you procrastinate and turn it down, or over prepare to the point of not feeling like anything is good enough. If you find yourself in this cycle a few times, consider the following options, as recommended by Puno:
- Verbalise the feelings to someone you can trust. “A lot of things have power over us because we repress them”, says Puno. “Throw it out there”.
- Examine some of the spoken or unspoken messages you might have received about your worth in childhood, and how this might be impacting you now. “We can tell ourselves a different story, change the script,” says Puno.
- “Do a little assessment of your skills, strengths and all the things that you are and could be. You want to validate that for yourself. If you are living a dream someone has chosen for you, it’s hard to value yourself,” advices Puno. “Establish your dream to be your own; highlight success and accomplishments; be able to accept acknowledgement from others.”
- Realise that you are not alone. “A lot of people experience this,” Puno stresses. “As soon as you can, tell yourself I am enough, this is enough.”
Leaders in workplaces can also play a key role in identifying imposter syndrome, Barratt said. They should look out for people who are procrastinating, and ask why, or look for the people who aren’t putting their hands up for projects even when they know they are capable. She also said bosses should listen out for the language people use to identify and own their successes and failures. “When praised, often we give everyone else credit for what they did and how that worked. But when we fail, often we own the failure ourselves.” Encouraging employees to accept praise when they have done well - something sufferers of imposter syndrome find very hard to do - can be one positive step.
Building on this, Puno advised that leaders shouldn’t use the label “imposter syndrome” when speaking to direct reports because people can react badly to the term if it isn’t something they have identified themselves, and can feel that it is something more, or worse, than it is.
As a final point, Barratt reminded the audience that imposter syndrome is inextricably tied into the topic of workplace inclusion. “imposter syndrome comes from thinking something isn’t plausible because you don’t see it. So, what as an organisation are we doing to make sure we have an inclusive culture so people see examples?” she challenged. Barratt gave a compelling example from her own experience: when a director on the board she sits on recently sent round an email addressed “Dear chaps”, Barratt wrote back “Hi girls”.
“It’s an organisation’s responsibility to call out the behaviours that feed these syndromes,” Barratt concluded.