I realised this week that I was held hostage for over 30 years. By myself!
It started with one event years ago. I was assigned a specific task to complete. I suddenly found myself feeling anxious and doubted that I would achieve this task. People praised me for a job well done. And then I had the most peculiar reaction to this praise – I felt guilty, because I did not feel good about achieving it and did not deserve this praise. After all, I am not good enough. I had another task to accomplish, and the same thing happened again – I felt like a failure and I did not deserve the praise. In no time, a new pattern formed: feeling guilty about being good enough.
Those of us who suffer from this experience do not realise that we set ourselves up for failure from the start. This feeling of guilt that we started with often mutates into a fear of being successful. I created unrealistic expectations through assumptions, comparing myself to the wrong people and their achievements, and, most importantly, denying my true self.
When my talents, strengths and leadership skills were acknowledged, I could not own those or understand what others recognized about me. My self-critic was more than not being capable, it was about how I thought about myself. And this impacted both my personal life and career.
The difference between imposter syndrome and self-doubt or lack of conﬁdence
There is a distinct difference between self- doubt, your inner critic and imposter syndrome.
The 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study describes the difference as:
“Self-doubt is about what you can do. Imposter Syndrome is about who you think you are.”
Self-doubt deals with mindset and confidence issues, where Imposter Syndrome deals with identity level issues – ‘Who am I?’ Clare Josa is considered to be the UK’s leading authority on Imposter syndrome. She describes imposter syndrome as your inner critic on steroids – it no longer looks at thoughts and feelings but at whom you believe you are and your existential fears. It is the fear of being found out as not good enough or a ‘fraud’, despite external evidence that we are doing well (2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study, p.8).
We can look at our inner conversations to identify which of these two levels we resonate with.
Do you ask yourself these questions: Who am I to do this? What if they see me and realise, I do not belong here? What if they find out I am a fraud?
When we talk to ourselves like this, it is about who we believe we are, which falls in the ambit of imposter syndrome. Self-talk that indicates self-doubt includes thoughts and statements that we do not know as much as we should or got to where we are through hard work or luck.
Josa researched the impact of imposter syndrome in the workplace and highlighted some actions to manage it. The research was based on the UK environment in 2019, and it included more than 2000 participants. She found no real difference gender-wise (a contradiction of previous studies by Clance & Imes in 1978 that claimed that only women are affected). The difference comes in how men and women experience it.
Seniority plays a significant role in the levels of Imposter Syndrome: when a man is promoted, the likelihood that the Syndrome will affect his performance goes down significantly. The opposite is true for women – it will affect their performance more.
The phenomenon affects an individual’s performance and mental health, which affects productivity and attendance. It can also lead to subconscious personal self-sabotage and harm to projects and the team’s bottom line. It also harms team dynamics and can create a toxic work environment.
Identifying individuals with Imposter Syndrome
An important factor to consider is that Imposter Syndrome does not mean someone is not good enough for the job. It means that they do not believe that they are, which affects their performance, productivity, mental health, and team and the company’s profit. It is also not clinically diagnosable.
The 2019 Study identified some early warning signs that managers and HR partners could look out for to identify individuals who may have Imposter Syndrome.
Clare Josa identified four fundamental behavioural changes to look out for and paired them with the traditional stress responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (a recent addition to the responses). They are perfectionism, procrastination, paralysis and people-pleasing. Let us unpack these behaviours from an Imposter Syndrome point of view:
Perfectionism can be damaging, as we choose to work much harder for longer, as though we are fighting with the project. This ultimately leads to exhaustion, overwhelm, a decline in performance and mental health. A manager may have been brilliant in the past but changed into an over-critical micro-manager. The team may become more risk-averse, and some team members may quit to avoid the unnecessary extra stress.
When we procrastinate, we seem to be working towards a goal, but our actions are not aligned. We spend time on non-value actions that will lead to burnout instead of a breakthrough. It is as though we are trying to flee from the goal. We mislead ourselves into thinking that we cannot move forward until all these not-so-important actions are taken. We are to hide that we are not taking real action as we may be ‘found out’, even when it means that we will miss team deadlines and let others down.
Paralysis gives us a false sense of invisibility – when we pretend that we cannot see the task we are avoiding, we freeze because we are scared that the world will know that we are not good enough. Our adrenaline rush will then help us get the project done in time. It is also where we play the blame game when it is found that we have avoided a task to keep ourselves safe.
The fourth behaviour is people-pleasing and is paired with fawning, sometimes referred to as appeasing. We say yes instead of no, to create a sense of belonging. Our own goals will suffer because of the added pressures. It will lead to a negative work-life balance, discounting prices when we should not and a lack of clear boundaries between team members and clients.
Managers and HR partners can take three actions to support staff with Imposter Syndrome.
- Open the conversation and let the individuals know that they are not alone (remember that they typically isolate themselves as the only one with the problem).
- Provide accurate information and training about what it is and is not. If team members understand this, they will start believing in themselves and improve performance levels. This is true for those with Imposter Syndrome and the team. The correct support will have long-lasting results.
- Cut stress levels and toxic working environments. Being subjected to constant high stress levels trigger our stress responses, and our brains are flooded with continuous adrenaline jabs. This harms our neurological functioning and emotional wellbeing.
As a manager or HR partner of a business, you need to know how Imposter Syndrome impacts your team. Remember, the research found that about 50% of staff suffer from this at least once in their lives and promotions may trigger the effects of it. It may not be possible for you to support your team fully yourself due to your capacity constraints, or you may not be skilled to do so effectively.
The organisation may need to train leadership and HR teams to provide the correct support levels and develop and implement the relevant policies.
It would be best to offer solutions that you can provide to staff members to curb Imposter Syndrome.
These solutions can include training, mentoring and coaching sessions.
Professional coaching is the ideal solution to overcome Imposter Syndrome. Coaching does not require you to relive traumatic experiences; it sets you up for a less hurtful future. To ensure the most significant investment return, consider appointing a credentialed coach with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). These coaches are well-trained, experienced and proudly guided by the ICF Code of Ethics.
To learn more about professional coaching and its organisational benefits, visit the ICF website
Christine Steyn is an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by the ICF. She holds a BA degree in Communication and Psychology. Her 18-year career in the corporate ﬁnancial industry is a testament to her strong leadership and management capabilities, as well as the ability to successfully inﬂuence the operational environment in a difficult financial climate. She has a deep understanding of the dynamics of personal interaction and the ability to improve the quality of conversations through candour and authenticity. Christine is experienced in management coaching, leadership coaching, coaching small business owners and team coaching.
About the ICF:
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organization leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 40,000-plus members located in more than 140 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organizations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organizations, communities and the world through coaching.
ICF South Africa is a Chartered Chapter of ICF with 483 members (June 2021 figures).
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