When people learn I’m an executive coach, they often ask me what my clients struggle with.
They’re curious to know what’s the most common topic for executive coaching. It’s probably not surprising that the range of topics our clients bring to us is as diverse as the clients themselves.
However, if pressed, one thing I would have to say percolates to the surface with many, perhaps even a majority of our clients is the Impostor Syndrome.
An American psychologist named Dr. Pauline Clance is credited with naming the concept which occurs when generally highly successful people experience strong feelings of unworthiness, self-doubt and a nagging belief that they have gotten to their role in life or in work by luck — simply being in the right place at the right time, or by someone else having made a mistake in choosing them.
Original research around this surprisingly common phenomenon focused on women, and it may occur more often with women, but it’s clear in our work at Padraig, it happens frequently for men too.
In the early months of my coaching career, after having just completed graduate studies in coaching, I was surprised to start learning how often this syndrome affects middle and senior leaders. But you see, I wasn’t surprised that it happens — I was surprised it happens to others.
For most of my career I was, what most people would see as a success. I rose from entry-level to executive level in less than five years. At the time I was the youngest of 2500 senior executives in the Government of Canada. I dove into opportunities as they arose, took on new assignments as they were given to me, often being asked to lead teams and organizations that were struggling. To the outside observer, my career was a spectacular success with a clear trajectory.
Yet throughout most of that time I didn’t feel good enough. I felt like I was lucky, not qualified. I worried I was going to blow it.
I occasionally reflect on those days and wonder what I might have accomplished had I thought differently, or … how much more I would have enjoyed myself, had I changed my thinking.
Some time ago, Quartz published an article online from Olivia Goldhill about this syndrome. In the article she quotes several big names who all admit to feeling this way.
Facebook COO and famous author of Lean In, Cheryl Sandberg quoted by Reuters said, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”
Renowned author John Steinback, in 1938 wrote in his diary “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
Oscar winning actress Jodie Foster, speaking at a Women in Entertainment Power 100 event, where she was the guest of honour, said, “I always feel like something of an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
So, it seems I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. In fact, in the mid-80s, Dr. Clance and a colleague found approximately 70% of people experience this phenomenon. And, keeping in mind how much more complex, personal and highly assessed leadership is now, compared to the 80s, I can only assume that number is even higher for leaders today.
So, that’s one of the ah-ha moments for me — the recognition and acknowledgement that I, and many of our clients, have suffered this feeling — undeservedly and more often than not, in shamed silence.
Why Impostor Syndrome is good
Now, the Quartz article also raised a really interesting possibility – that there is actually a correlation between the impostor syndrome and success. In other words, suggesting “those who don’t suffer (some) impostor syndrome are more likely to be real frauds.” The way I read that is that our mental health will be stronger when we can acknowledge we almost all feel like frauds, and that’s ok, rather than putting on a brave face and/or denying, even to ourselves, that we’re feeling this way.
I can understand the Quartz angle. It’s true that people who feel like impostors tend to care deeply about the quality of their work. To ensure they do a great job, folks with impostor syndrome tend to study harder and work longer. We don’t want half-baked results, particularly if our work affects others.
The problem is, all that comes at a huge cost.
Why Impostor Syndrome is not so good
“Impostors” often equate competence with perfection. We believe every bit of our work must be exemplary. Anything less leads to inner criticism that leads to shame based on a perceived “failure.”
Then, because there is such shame in failing, we’ll sometimes avoid new or difficult things because achieving results that we feel are suitable takes so much effort. I wrote about this result of perfectionism in an earlier blog post, Is Perfection Preventing Progress?
Further, even if you’re willing to dive in and you’re really motivated to succeed, success is rarely satisfying because you always think you could have done better. You negotiate a great deal but wonder if you could have gotten a better one. You offer up great advice in an executive team meeting but beat yourself up for not remembering one other point. You coach your employee who is struggling but berate yourself for not doing it sooner.
Or maybe the doubt has kicked-in and you find yourself missing opportunities because you believe you have to know everything and be an expert before contributing so you waffle back and forth in an important meeting, “Should I say something? Should I not?” and find you’ve missed the chance.
And, since you do prepare so much and strive so hard, you usually do deliver a fantastic contribution — which in turn reinforces your goal of maintaining perfection. But, you’re setting yourself up.
Does any of this sound familiar?
When you expect to be perfect it’s not a matter of “if” you will be disappointed, but “when.” We know then the disappointed starts the cycle of berating yourself all over again. Perfectionism is very difficult to stop, because it is self-reinforcing.
How Impostor Syndrome affects you and your organization
Now imagine the effect on the organization when a leader who has spent their life trying to contribute perfectly and has been seen as a great contributor, lands the corner office and is hamstrung with anxiety, and self-doubt, thinking they have fooled their way into this job.
How does that anxiety manifest itself, how does that need for perfectionism trickle down to your staff? We wrote about that previously here.
So where am I going with all this? You can do some things to lessen the burden of the Impostor Syndrome and to not only enjoy your work more, but to actually be more successful as well:
- Become aware of when our self-talk is self defeating. Acknowledge the criticism you’re telling yourself and ask yourself why.
- Start being more selective about where we put our “perfection” effort and spend less of our effort and inner strength on things that matter less. Remind yourself of the words of the late author, Jennifer White: “Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with having high standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.”
- Practise acknowledging to yourself, and to others, that perhaps our goal should be balance rather than perfection. As a coach friend of mine once said to me, “What if it turns out it’s not about doing things right or wrong, but instead it’s just about doing them?”
How is the Impostor Syndrome showing up in your self-talk? How is it affecting you and your work? What is ONE thing you commit to doing this week, to break the impostor habits and to accept that you are not lucky, you are not “good enough” — and acknowledge you are GREAT?