If you feel like a fraud in the workplace, waiting to be found out by your peers, you are not alone.
That’s what Kevin Wilde, an executive leadership fellow at Carlson School of Business, discovered a few semesters ago among one of his executive MBA cohorts.
Wilde typically invites his classes to choose a topic they want to research and present on it to the class. In the past, typical topics were things like managing change, how to lead inclusively or global strategies. To Wilde’s surprise, this group in particular chose to study “impostor syndrome,” which, according to literature on the subject, refers to persistently doubting your accomplishments and having intruding feelings of inadequacy.
The group began their impostor syndrome lesson by taking a poll to gauge the class’s experience with the subject, and to Wilde, the results were shocking: A total of 90 percent responded saying they had identified as having impostor syndrome at some point.
“Here is a high-achieving, very smart group of leaders, destined for senior roles,” Wilde said. “And they’ve all experienced it.”
In the workplace, impostor syndrome can be detrimental to individuals and entire teams.
“It’s more common than you think,” Wilde said. “It may be holding people back, and I think it’s something worth addressing to help both individuals succeed as well as improve the quality of leadership you have coming up in your organization.”
A well-equipped learning and development strategy can help address this phenomenon in individuals and across an organization.
Combatting Impostor Syndrome
The term “impostor syndrome” originates from a research paper published in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A Imes, titled “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” In their research, Clance and Imes wanted to study women specifically, who struggled to feel deserving of their own success and accomplishments, instead attributing them to luck or perfect timing.
In reality, impostor syndrome presents itself in individuals at nearly every level of an organization, and research shows that roughly 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at least once in their lives, said Brooke McCord, a life and career transition coach with Ama La Vida. It is also worth nothing that imposter syndrome presents itself disproportionately in both women and minority groups.
McCord, who works mostly with individuals who are in the middle of a career transition, said impostor syndrome can manifest itself in a number of different ways in the workplace.
“It comes up as feelings of inadequacy, not speaking at meetings, not sharing ideas, really doubting yourself and withdrawing,” she said. “Procrastination, not completing tasks, self-sabotage and also micromanaging and over-controlling of tasks,” are some additional ways impostor syndrome presents itself.
To combat feelings of impostor syndrome in the workplace, Wilde suggests L&D leaders partner with the company’s broader talent management and development function and embed the topic as a learning opportunity into development programs.
Wilde, who’s a 34-year veteran in the leadership and talent development space, most notably as chief learning officer for General Mills for 17 years, said an organization should be discussing impostor syndrome at every level, from entry level all the way to the C-suite. Coaching and mentoring can also provide a safe environment for an individual to have a conversation about their impostor syndrome, he added.
McCord coaches her clients to address their impostor syndrome in a couple of key ways. First, they identify it: “You don’t know what you have until you can label it, and then you are able to treat it,” she said.
Coaching to create a new mantra or narrative that embraces a different way of approaching the intrusive feeling of being a fraud is also helpful. Last, and perhaps most important, McCord likes to remind her clients that they are people first. For that reason, she said she gives the same advice to leaders of organizations as she does to anyone else.
If you’re a learning leader and it’s your mission to advocate for learning and workforce development, you’ve got to prove that it’s relevant to the business and be able to pull it off, Wilde said.
“When you get to the more senior levels, you can feel impostor syndrome because the situation is more challenging,” he said. “Once you’re a CLO and you get to the table, it’s not the adult table anymore. It’s the kid’s table. And there’s a food fight. You’ve got to be as confident and as robust in advocating what you think is right for the business and for the people as everyone else.”
Something that the students of Wilde’s executive MBA cohort suggested that would help leaders with impostor syndrome is to go the collaboration route on projects, and to start that collaboration early on. The strategy here is that the leader experiencing impostor syndrome wouldn’t have to navigate the project alone, especially if it is big or challenging, Wilde said.
The reality is that impostor syndrome can happen at any point in someone’s career. In some cases, it can prevent individuals from applying somewhere in the first place, even if it could be for their dream job. As many organizations are currently concerned with the rate at which their talent pipeline is learning and accelerating, Wilde suggests addressing impostor syndrome early within those talent pools.
Finally, both Wilde and McCord said that reaching out to trusted peers and co-workers for support is another way to combat feelings of impostor syndrome. Allow yourself to be comforted, accept praise when it’s given and treat mistakes as learning opportunities, McCord said.
“It’s really easy to believe the negative,” she added. “But what if we spent as much time believing the positive things?”
Tackling it Together
Since impostor syndrome is so wide-reaching, it’s important to be transparent about it and tackle it as a team. Sharing tips and tricks, along with providing resources such as workshops, training and speaker-led discussions about impostor syndrome to your workplace will help address it for individuals and on a companywide level, McCord said.
Additionally, in her 2017 TED Talk on impostor syndrome, subject matter expert Valerie Young discusses the value of reframing as a tool against impostor syndrome-related feelings: Pay attention to the conversation going on in your head, and reframe it the way a non-impostor would.
Depending on the culture of the organization, you might be able to jump right into a discussion about impostor syndrome, Wilde said. But for others, it could take some time to slowly pivot into a place where it can be discussed comfortably.
“Let’s not go it alone,” Wilde said. “How can we make this a conversation?”