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Imposter syndrome 101: understand and overcome

What does imposter syndrome actually mean, is it common and how can you help yourself and others to combat it?

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Imposter syndrome is a term that gets a lot of attention in the corporate world; it’s often used in relation to women and it can have a significant impact on those who experience it. But what is imposter syndrome? How common is it, who does it affect and how can we better manage the impact?

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is generally defined as a doubting of your abilities and feeling like a fraud in the workplace - something that most people have probably encountered at some point during their career. This feeling can impact how people behave at work, for example being less willing to put themselves forward for certain roles, being reluctant to voice their opinions in meetings or undermining what they are saying by caveating or changing how they phrase things. 

This International Women’s Day, we interviewed five inspiring women at Clarasys. We asked each of them if they had ever experienced imposter syndrome and to offer some advice on how to overcome the feeling. 


Although imposter syndrome is more commonly associated with women (partially due to the initial studies in this area focusing solely on women), more recent research suggests that men also experience similar feelings of inadequacy in their capabilities.

It is also important to note that by labelling the fairly common phenomenon of doubting your abilities, questioning if you are the right person for a job or mild workplace anxiety as a ‘syndrome’, we are at risk of adding weight to something which perhaps is to be expected when we are challenging ourselves.

As Principal Consultant Sarah Rigby mentions in the above video, the feelings around imposter syndrome could be viewed in a more positive light: “if anything, it's actually a great thing because it means that you're pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to develop”.

It is therefore important not to make assumptions about what individuals are feeling and avoid labelling someone as ‘having imposter syndrome’ when looking to deliver feedback for example. It is also critical that individuals understand that these feelings are common and don’t have to be permanent. Something as simple as changing our language from ‘suffering from’ imposter syndrome to ‘experiencing’ imposter syndrome can really change individual and organisational perceptions of this challenge.

How can you combat imposter syndrome?

There are two main ways in which imposter syndrome can be addressed within the workplace. Firstly through looking at the culture and environment of a workplace, and secondly by helping individuals manage the impact of their doubts in their abilities. 

Cultural considerations

Most often, imposter syndrome is considered to be an individual issue. Although this can sometimes be the case, there are often compounding contextual challenges which make it much harder for individuals to feel like they can thrive. For example, in a largely white, male-dominated industry like consulting, some groups of individuals may feel like they don’t belong. This could be due to gender, race, sexuality or other characteristics (and often intersectionality across these different groups).

To address this, instead of purely focusing on individuals and asking them to ‘fix’ their imposter syndrome, organisations should reflect on the environment and culture they are creating. Is DE&I data being captured and measured? Are different leadership styles and approaches supported and celebrated across the business? Are there a diverse range of individuals with different gender, race, ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds in senior leadership positions within your organisation? Many of the feelings of inadequacy that individuals experience can be linked to a lack of visibility of similar people to them in more senior roles. Ensuring you have a diverse and inclusive workforce will give those questioning whether they can achieve their goals a sense of belonging and belief that they can thrive in these spaces. 

Individual tools

Whilst we can encourage organisations to take some responsibility for the imposter syndrome that individuals may be experiencing, culture change of this scale takes time and may not even be on the cards for some people’s workplaces. 

So what can individuals do themselves to help alleviate the impact of imposter syndrome?

The 3 ‘N’s

The 3 Ns is a technique commonly used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which looks to Notice, Name and Normalise thoughts and feelings that an individual is experiencing.

Notice

Being aware of the thoughts and feelings associated with your imposter syndrome is a crucial first step in reducing its impact. Take 5 minutes now to just note down a description of what you experience when imposter syndrome shows up. This could be thoughts (you’re too young to challenge his thinking), feelings (panic), physical sensations (nausea before a big meeting) and behaviours/urges (cancelling a meeting and sending an email instead). 

Now you have this list, take a few minutes out a couple of times a day and do a quick self-scan to see if any of these are showing up for you. By being more aware of when imposter syndrome is present, you will be better able to tackle its impact. 

Name

Once you become familiar with how imposter syndrome shows up for you, it’s important to give it a name and acknowledge its presence. This could be through a wry smile and a ‘huh, there’s my imposter syndrome showing up again’ or you can even create a character for it. What do they look like? Are they a big bully or a disapproving teacher? This is a nice way to create space from some of that internal dialogue.

Normalise

As discussed previously, these feelings of inadequacy and a doubting of abilities is very common - in both men and women. Difficult thoughts and feelings are part and parcel of being human and by acknowledging this it can help to view these experiences in a less judgmental way. 

A really helpful way to do this is by sharing your experience with others within the workplace. More often than not there will be another (and often more than one!) person who is going through or has gone through something very similar. Encouraging these conversations will allow you and others to understand that everyone can face these kinds of challenges and that they don’t have to be a limiting factor on your success.

Conclusion

Overall, although imposter syndrome is a concept that is spoken about a lot within the corporate world, it is important to remember that sometimes these feelings can actually be seen as a positive indication that you are pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. Organisations should first look at their culture to ensure they are not creating an environment that exasperates an individual’s feeling of not belonging. Secondly, individuals can use the 3 ‘N’s’ of noticing their thoughts and feelings, giving them a name and finally sharing those experiences with those around them to help minimise the impact that imposter syndrome can have. 

Want more? 

READ: What is D and I and why is it important in organisations?

READ: Employee wellbeing – top of the agenda for 2022

READ: Diversity is in the data: How collecting diversity data can support your D&I initiatives

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