Book extract: The Impostor Syndrome – What companies can do

The term "impostor syndrome" describes how many in business lack confidence and belief in themselves, and the way in which they are unable to internalise their accomplishments and often attribute their success to luck. In this extract, clinical psychologist Harold Hillman explains how companies can overcome this tendency.

What companies can do

Company cultures often perpetuate the conditions that make it possible for Impostor Syndrome to thrive, sometimes at the deepest levels which are not obvious to the eye. There are implicit rules in every company that govern how employees conduct themselves. In some companies mistakes are not only acceptable, but are considered necessary in a culture that values innovation and risk-taking. In other organisations mistakes are frowned upon, and an individual can be tarnished by a single incident that might elsewhere be considered trivial. Hierarchical structures and codes of conduct are still alive and well in many companies, making it difficult for employees at the front line to have input into work processes and procedures that affect their work directly.

In companies where mistakes are not tolerated and risk-taking is viewed as the exception rather than the norm, those who are burdened by Impostor Syndrome will be especially careful to contain their worries. They will hide mistakes and refuse to ask for help or assistance out of fear of being perceived as a burden, or even worse, incompetent. And if individuality is discouraged and employees are expected to fit a particular mode of being, it becomes even more difficult for people to be their authentic selves, opting to fit in rather than stand out.

Leaders in companies can do something about Impostor Syndrome. It starts with an acknowledgement that no organisation, regardless of size, is immune from this common phenomenon. So long as there are people with high standards who are eager to succeed, be accepted and fit in, there will be inherent pressures to minimise risk and maximise safe options. Those are fertile conditions for someone who is wearing the impostor’s inside an organisation. Taking less risk means there is less chance of standing out — just what impostors prefer.

The strategies listed below are actions that companies can take to make it acceptable for employees at all levels to be better learners, a prerequisite to being better leaders. You can take a proactive stance in creating an environment where authentic leadership really does matter. Impostor Syndrome is not just something that has a fancy name — you can actually do something about it.

Invest in stretch
Many companies put little, if any, forethought into how they stretch and grow employees to greater levels of capability and competence. In fact, most companies do ‘stretch’ poorly, and in some cases perpetuate Impostor Syndrome by making it unacceptable for their rising stars to show vulnerability at a critical time when it is quite normal for them to experience it. I have come across some senior leaders who believe that a true test of a person’s potential to lead is to throw them in the deep end and see how they fare. While there is definitely some merit to testing future leaders under pressure, it can become a costly venture when you put an important project or part of the business at risk, not to mention the likelihood that you will lose a talented person who de-rails as a result of inadequate support.

There is also a prevalent mindset that successful stretch is mostly about people being able to find their own way, sometimes with little or no forethought from the managers who are responsible for tracking their progress. Most managers who are trying to lift an employee’s capability are likely to be operating largely off intuition driven by their own personal experiences. There are tools now that can help guide us on things like determining a person’s aptitude or readiness for a new or different role, or assessing whether a person’s learning or change agility is compatible with the demands or constraints of a challenging assignment. And we know far more about the precipitants of career de-railment than we did two decades ago. Yet most managers today aren’t familiar with some of the basics associated with successful stretch. This is an area that companies need to pay more attention to and invest in training, not only for those being stretched, but for those doing the stretching.

Demystify ‘potential’
The word ‘potential’ has been the source of much consternation and debate in companies, often with the unanticipated consequence of leaving some employees demotivated and turned off to the prospect of advancement. The traditional talent and succession-planning matrices often call for an assessment of employees’ potential, which can determine how much a company is willing to invest in any person’s growth and development. When you rank people as ‘high potential’, it implies that others have ‘low potential’ — and what a horrific stigma to attach to people who come to work each day trying to make a difference.

It is far better to talk about a person’s span rather than their potential, as it speaks to the appetite employees may have to venture beyond the realm of technical expertise into the broader realm of management or cross-functional roles. Span is about the direction of travel for career progression, with lower span implying greater investment in technical training, and higher span implying greater investment in management training. Regardless of how you classify a person in terms of their span, it is clear their ongoing development is a priority. When you classify people on their potential, you inevitably end up with the unintended consequence of many people feeling devalued. In this case, semantics makes a huge difference.

Validate that leadership requires disruption
The old adage ‘be careful what you pray for’ applies to companies that say they value strong leadership, innovation and risk-taking. All of the above imply a tolerance for disruption, particularly if the status quo is considered the biggest impediment to growth. Leadership is about taking people to a different place. It is hard to navigate and lead that journey without first disrupting aspects of the current reality. And it is hard to disrupt anything without making some degree of noise. When we tell our leaders that we want them to drive change, but then we signal to them that they have to do so with little or no noise, we are sending a mixed and contradictory message. If anything, you should be more concerned if there is no noise associated with change. In the absence of noise, people may have not yet realised that they are supposed to be doing things differently.

One of the symptoms of Impostor Syndrome is to minimise the noise around you, to detract attention and focus away from yourself and onto something extraneous, particularly if things go wrong. When this happens, we miss the essence of a real learning opportunity. A part of taking risks and being innovative is to make the occasional mistake. Famous photographers take hundreds of photos to get that one perfect image. Success rarely happens without some missteps, so how can we make it okay and acceptable for our employees, particularly those in stretch, to make mistakes? And do so without expending more energy hiding those mistakes rather than discussing them? Disruption, noise, learning from mistakes — these are all attributes of leading change. What are the prevalent frames that define leadership in your company? Do those frames support disruption?

Determine why leadership and authenticity are important together
Leaders who are comfortable being themselves make it easier for their teams to do the same. Leaders who put a premium on conformity make it difficult for their teams to deviate from these powerful norms. In turn, they stifle creativity, individual expressiveness and authenticity. The woman with purple hair, while she didn’t intend to make a statement about her individuality, found that her acceptance by peers was largely a function of her willingness not to stand out. She found out, quite by accident and through a silly bet with her sisters, that her performance was largely assessed on the basis of her willingness to fit in. When she made the choice to stand out, her capability was questioned.

This is not to say that conformity isn’t sometimes a valid if not noble objective. Women from Western cultures don traditional head scarves when working in Islamic cultures, largely out of respect for what is deemed acceptable and appropriate. You are more likely to influence successful outcomes if people see you as showing respect for what they think is important. There are many other examples of how conformity generates successful outcomes. The major point here is that companies must determine their own acceptance of individuality, knowing that you only get to test what the limits are when someone or some team pushes the boundary. If someone’s individuality bothers you, the important question to ask is: Will my asking this person to conform make a material difference to the performance of the business, or will it just make me feel better? In many companies, conformity is not tied to business performance; it is tied to making managers feel better.

Set the example in the executive suite
It starts at the very top. Chief executive or senior leaders who can acknowledge bouts with vulnerability and face-offs with those moments of reconciliation are powerful exemplars and role models for employees who want to make a real difference in the company. Many first-time CEOs (and those who remember their first CEO role) are very familiar with Impostor Syndrome. I have coached first-time chief executives who hadn’t anticipated the pressures associated with everyone else’s expectations that they be both omniscient and omnipotent. And if you decide to take on those expectations, you are more inclined to close yourself off from any scenarios which are likely to raise your sense of vulnerability — the very thing that makes you more compelling!

The symptoms are not just limited to CEOs, but are shared among those occupying board rooms and executive suites around the world. With greater roles and titles come greater responsibilities, and, almost without fail, greater expectations. In those who have been around the longest, you will often find the biggest struggles with the Critic, who insists that their success must beget further success, all the while minimising as many ‘vulnerability encounters’ as possible.

Create vulnerability encounters
There is a distinct difference between dialogue and debate. The former is about divergence and exploration. The latter is about convergence and decision. These are two different ways that leaders can engage with others to improve the quality of thinking and decision-making. Vulnerability can happen in either of these spaces, as the zones of dialogue and debate are often viewed as natural preferences. Taking people out of their comfort zones in terms of how they prefer to lead others will create vulnerability encounters. The more you encounter vulnerability, the less of a stranger it becomes.

Vulnerability encounters come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one thing in common: they create opportunities for people to step away from absolute certainty and safety, to venture into uncertainty and risky territory, and to rely on the elements of who they are to drive them toward successful outcomes. A politician who answers a question with ‘I don’t know’. A rugby player who decides within a millisecond to take a kick for goal, rather than pass the ball. An aspiring actor who decides to try her hand at improv. A church minister who must comfort a bereaved parent. These are all vulnerability encounters. And they all pull us away from a place of safety and toward a space where our leadership might make a huge difference.

Normalise the syndrome
People new to a company experience it. People promoted into bigger roles experience it. People who stand out, or are singled out, for being different experience it. Young people experience it. Older people experience it. The novice apprentice and the newly appointed chief executive experience it. Most people who walk through the door each morning have experienced it. It is hard to believe that something that is experienced by most people is also something that most people are reluctant to acknowledge or talk about. Impostor Syndrome. Like any commodity, it’s not so big and bad when everybody else has experienced it too!

Impostor Syndrome isn’t new. It is as common as . . . well, the common cold. And just like the common cold, you can treat the symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, or you can make some fundamental changes that will decrease its recurrence across time. You should consider yourself fortunate to have that choice.

© Copright. Reprinted with permission from Random House New Zealand. For more details: The Imposter Syndrome


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