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‘Imposter Syndrome’ can have harmful impacts on c-suite execs

‘Imposter Syndrome’ can have harmful impacts on c-suite execs

‘Imposter syndrome shouldn’t be seen as a pathological condition or necessarily a negative:’ Dr Ferres

Dr Natalie Ferres

Dr Natalie Ferres

While 'imposter syndrome' is most common in high achieving women, and a constant foe, there are methods to combat the problem: Don’t let the critical voice steer you down the wrong path, and acknowledge the critic as a source of information, not a directive of truth.

That’s some of the advice dished out by Bendelta’s chief connection officer, Dr Natalie Ferres, who specialises in the role of emotional intelligence in leadership and is passionate about helping leaders overcome imposter syndrome.

Ferres weighed into the ‘imposter syndrome’ debate after a recent article in CIO Australia that said women in STEM roles are experiencing imposter syndrome. The article discussed how many women in STEM roles “feel like frauds,” and how imposter syndrome, cognitive bias during hiring, and a lack of interest are possible reasons for the drop in women in STEM roles.

CIO Australia caught up with Ferres, who for over 20 years has been studying the science of management and leadership. Her latest research involves building a framework, which unites insights about the psychological, biological and behavioural patterns of the people who are world-class in selected capabilities, such as resilience, creativity and empathy.

 What is imposter syndrome?

Natalie Ferres: Imposter syndrome is where you are seen as successful by outside external measures but internally you feel like a fraud and undeserving. This is despite being authentically talented or high-achieving. If you have ever had the feeling of being convinced that your success has been the result of fooling people around you and that you’ll soon be found out, you could have been in ‘imposter mode’. Some of the more common thoughts and feelings include, ‘I’m a fake’, ‘I’ve been lucky’, ‘I must not fail’, ‘Success isn’t important’.

Is it prevalent? And if so, why?

NF: While feeling like an imposter can strike at any stage of your career, it is most prevalent when you feel stretched out of your comfort zone. The latter is more likely to occur when you become more senior, causing an avoidance of more responsibility and a reluctance to put your hat in the ring for roles higher up the ladder.

This is reinforced by psychological research, which has found that imposter syndrome is most common in high achieving people. In my work with leaders, I’m always surprised by how often it comes up as an issue – this has included CEOs of large private entities, those at the upper echelon of the public sector and a seemingly unflappable judge.

Some of the original work in this area points to imposter syndrome being most common in high achieving women. It is argued that women undervalue themselves or avoid putting themselves forward whereas some men tend to wing it. 

How can leaders overcome imposter syndrome? What steps/measures can people take to combat it?

NF: If you think imposter syndrome is more of an enemy than a helper, you can try the following strategies:

Become mindful of your imposter mode. What are the triggers? What does your inner critic say to you? What are your usual responses? Are there any patterns? Building self-awareness is the necessary foundation for change.

Name it. Name your feelings and experiences as imposter syndrome. Don’t judge it negatively. Remember that you’re in good company.

Positively reframe. By acknowledging that imposter syndrome is normal, you can help reduce ill effects. Also, create a positive go-to phrase: e.g. “just because I feel incompetent right now does not mean that I am a bad leader.”

Take a hard look at working hard. Are you compensating for something? Is it making you feel less or more worthy (noting that it can do both).

Consider your strengths. Take a look back at your accomplishments.

Practice self-compassion. You’re often harder on yourself than you are on others. Look objectively at the situation. How would you respond to a friend in the same situation?

What are some things leaders shouldn't do? 

NF: For the vast majority, including otherwise capable women and men, imposter syndrome shouldn’t be seen as a pathological condition or necessarily a negative. It’s less of a constant foe and more of a triggered response. Don’t let the critical voice steer you down the wrong path. Acknowledge the critic as a source of information, not a directive of truth.

What are the implications for people in STEM-related roles?

NF: Like a headache, imposter syndrome can be transitory and draining when it occurs, with harmful impacts on your career. When imposter syndrome reaches debilitating levels, it can result in one or more of the following:

  • Avoidance of more responsibility, as well as career and other opportunities;
  • Approval seeking behaviours and a thirst for external validation;
  • Diligence and hard work, sometimes to the point of workaholism;
  • Diminished confidence;
  • Relationships with peers being undermined;
  • Downplaying success, which can lead to others’ reduced confidence in you;
  • Obsessing about mistakes and negative feedback; and
  • Less resilience and agility.

For those in or seeking a STEM career, imposter syndrome has been inversely linked to both persistence in the field as well as the completion of STEM study programs. For STEM specialists who might err towards imposter syndrome, recognise that while you may think you’re flawed at times, so do your heroes.  

Bendelta’s Potentiology research, which dissected the habits, mindsets and behaviours of some of the world’s most successful people, supported that most in the group didn’t succeed because they are perfect. 

STEM specialists have often acknowledged issues that caused them to consider leaving STEM contexts, particularly after a sign of ‘failure’, or somewhat paradoxically, after a notable achievement. 

These people succeed in spite of their flaws, including feeling like a fraud or making mistakes, some of the time. It’s a person’s ability to persist and move forward that is far more important than 100 per cent confidence, 100 per cent of the time. And that’s arguably more true in STEM than in any other field.

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Tags leadershipSTEMimposter syndromeresilienceemotional intelligencecreativityempathy

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