Feeling like an Imposter?

Mystery Hoody Man Wearing Black Mask Holding Two White Masks In

Imposter syndrome is a phrase that’s often bandied about in the media; the suggestion being that it’s a key roadblock to women’s career success. Often conflated with poor self-esteem and one’s ‘inner critic’ true imposter syndrome is rare and affects both men and women equally. To grow into Balanced Leaders it’s important we understand what Imposter syndrome really is: not least because research has shown it can contribute to work-family conflict.

Imposter syndrome – or more accurately impostor phenomenon – was first identified by two American Psychologists back in 1978. It’s defined by six clear characteristics: feelings of intellectual phoniness; a belief that one’s success is attributed to luck or hard work and not ability; a lack of confidence in one’s ability to repeat past achievements; a fear of being evaluated by others and failure; the inability to derive pleasure from past achievements and a fear that one’s incompetence will be discovered by others.

It’s quite possible to feel like an imposter without suffering from imposter syndrome. Doing our best to appear competent in a professional role and also be a good parent can lead to feelings that we’re not achieving either – that we’ll be found out as a fraud. Often that’s a consequence of having little clarity in what’s expected of us in both our workplace and home roles. We take on the expectations of others and try to live up to them. Perhaps it’s time to re-consider and write our own role scripts.

Our feelings of being an imposter can be exacerbated by the complexities inherent in the modern workplace; and which increasingly call on us to navigate circumstances we’ve never before encountered. As women we know we’re likely to be judged harshly should we make a mistake; so it’s important that we connect with our inner power and grow ourselves into the leaders we want to become.

Research has shown that our feelings of being an imposter can lead to emotional exhaustion which in turn can result in work to family conflict. This happens when we feel that playing our family role is made more difficult by the demands of our work role. Psychologists explain this by talking about the Conservation of Resources. Each of us has finite physical and psychological resources and we do our best to guard these. When we feel like an imposter we are likely to expend more of these resources in order to do a good job, leaving us depleted during our family time.

The good news is research has also shown that when we feel supported by our employer we are less likely to suffer the damaging effects of feeling like an imposter. So we can help ourselves by:

  • Asking our manager to clearly define the outcomes expected of us;
  • Asking for the resources we need to be effective in our work;
  • Identifying what gets in the way of us achieving our workplace objectives and doing our best to eliminate those obstacles.

At the heart of the imposter phenomenon lies a deep-seated and flawed self-image constructed over many years. Changing that self-image is likely to require psychological support from someone qualified to help. But feeling like an imposter some of the time is almost inevitable as we navigate life’s challenges and changes. In all likelihood you’re not suffering from a syndrome; you’re simply experiencing the normal doubts and uncertainties that go with undertaking something new. The good news is you’re more than capable of resolving those doubts and uncertainties; and taking the necessary action that will get you to where you want to be.

Coping with complexity

Smiling female student siting front open book and learning

We live in a complex world. Some commentators go further and call it a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Choosing to champion Balanced Working for ourselves and our team can – ironically – add an extra layer of complexity to our working lives. At least at the outset.

How do we help ourselves and our teams to manage these complex environments?

Since the middle of the last century psychologists have come to understand that making decisions when we’re faced with too many choices becomes stressful. And – of course – our #AlwaysOn hyper-connected lifestyles are resulting in an overwhelm of information.

As an antidote, Stanford University Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt recommends setting three simple rules. Three rules are likely to be remembered and more likely to be put into action when people are stressed.

Simplicity is also the recommendation of author and speaker Greg McKeown. According to him becoming a great leader requires:

“the disciplined pursuit of less but better”

McKeown’s research has shown that teams and the people in them thrive with a high level of clarity of purpose. He stresses the importance of carving out the time and space needed to achieve that clarity.

A team that aims to achieve Balanced Working will need two layers of simple rules. The first must be around how to manage their more flexible working practices. The developers of ROWE (the Results-Only Work Environment) offer some guidance here with rules around the acceptable use of time during the day; around communication and around actually doing the work for which we’ve been hired.

Once those rules are in place the team can focus on simplifying work processes: developing the capacity to be more agile in response to the ever changing workplace environment.

Aiming for clarity and simplicity protects us against what Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann call ‘hypervigilant behaviour’ – often exhibited when we attempt to make complex decisions under duress. The outcome is a never ending search for more information while we try and find the ideal solution.

A further benefit of simplicity – according to Professor Eisenhardt – is that collecting too much data results in using the past to predict the future. Our own experience of the rapid pace of change increasingly tells us this is unlikely to be the case. The future will be different.

Faced with this knowledge we must learn to let go of our desire to control that future. A recent McKinsey article advises leaders to develop:

“a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty”

Psychologists consider organisations to be complex adaptive systems in constant tension between stability and change. Although it’s true we’ve had more and more of the latter in recent years. It’s this emergent change that often fuels our uncertainty. But if we are to adapt and to create better ways of working we must learn to embrace and manage it.