Guest contributor Squadron Leader Beth Gerling shares useful thoughts about imposter syndrome. 

Remember that many of us can experience imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is described as a phenomenon – it’s not a diagnosis. People who experience this may feel quite unsatisfied with their achievements. It can have real career consequences when people respond to this doubt by avoiding opportunities where they may be stretched or by responding to self-doubt with perfectionism or working too hard. It may also have a negative impact on mood and general wellbeing.

  • First thought to primarily affect high-achieving women, imposter syndrome is now known to also affect people more broadly. 
  • Research shows that those who belong to a minority group may experience heightened feelings of being a fraud particularly where they don’t “fit the mould” of their organisation.
  • It’s very common for leaders to experience self-doubt, particularly as they transition to higher levels of leadership.

What leaders can do for themselves

As leaders become more senior in an organisation, they are more likely to be surrounded by other capable people who they then compare themselves to. The problem with this is that we don’t often hear about the self-doubt that these other people also experience. 

  • This means that it’s important for leaders to be a little more candid about their inner experience with their colleagues. Finding out that others may also be “winging it” to some extent can be somewhat comforting.
  • Update our evolutionary brains. Because leaders are required to be responsible and accountable, they tend to be more tuned in to potential threats, particularly in situations where they are visible. Being visible can also make you feel more self-conscious – and the thoughts that go with that can take up precious brain-space. There is an evolutionary basis to this because, for our distant ancestors, maintaining belonging and esteem within a group gave you a greater chance of survival. The risks are different now but we still process social evaluation as being particularly threatening or even painful.  

If you chase confidence, you will find it hard to come by – instead it’s a by-product of other things

In my experience of working with leaders, it’s not uncommon for women to be told to “back themselves more” when receiving 360-degree feedback or in performance reporting. Unfortunately, no-one really backs themselves more by being given this feedback! So how do we develop confidence in a way that actually works and is sustainable?

  • Being clear about your own values and what you stand for makes it easier to communicate this to others. It helps you pick your battles and it helps you identify what behaviour is useful to you and what is not. Aligning values with behaviour is good for more than just confidence, it’s good for wellbeing too. For a good read on this topic, I recommend The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. 
  • Being clear about what you need to learn. Another problem with the imposter phenomenon is that it is often a pervasive, vague and generalised sense that you are not good enough…which is just not helpful. What can be helpful is getting to the core of where your developmental needs are (we all have them). What do you need to learn? What do you need to practise? Who might help guide you in an area you feel uncertain about? Identifying your needs, making a plan and taking some action to address them puts you in control and replaces beliefs of not being good enough with more realistic appraisals of where you’re heading. 
  • Use “vertical development” strategies to build robust confidence. Real confidence is a by-product of robust development opportunities that take you outside your comfort zone. Unfortunately, these are the very experiences that can trigger feelings of being out of one’s depth. Nick Petrie at the Centre for Creative Leadership promotes a concept called “vertical development”. This is development that is transformative and allows you to think in more complex ways rather than simply learning more “stuff”. The necessary conditions for this type of development are heat, collision and sense-making: 
    • Heat experiences stretch us beyond what we can already do and are often high-stakes or high profile (and scary). 
    • Collision requires us to be exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking about these experiences. 
    • Sense-making requires a coach or mentor to help us make sense of this in our own context. 

So, to develop confidence and ability, I would highly recommend seeking out these opportunities and getting good support from those who can help you make sense of it, including those who may share different perspectives.

  • Embrace some uncertainty. Experiencing self-doubt may at least be a good signal that you are not suffering from the dreaded “Dunning Kruger effect”. This is where people who are incompetent also lack the skills necessary to recognise their incompetence (the first rule of Dunning Kruger club is that you don’t know you are in it).  So, embrace feeling a little uncertain or unsure – it’s likely to lead you to think deeply, learn something, and make better decisions as a result. 

Squadron Leader Beth Gerling is the Deputy Director of Psychology for the New Zealand Defence Force, with  a wide range of experience in organisational psychology and leadership development. She has been a uniformed psychologist within the NZDF for 12 years.

What leaders can do for their teams

Jude from Umbrella add some ways that leaders can help their teams.

Leaders and executive coaches can play a pivotal role in addressing and overcoming imposter syndrome. KPMG’s US research found that 47% of executive women believed that having a supportive performance manager was the number one factor in combating imposter syndrome. 

  • Leaders can point out authentic skills in others. Leaders can remind those they’ve promoted – especially women and those from minority groups – that they absolutely have what it takes to be where they are and to have experienced their degree of success – to reinforce their authentic selves. 
  • Leaders can ensure their employees feel valued, rewarded, and appreciated. They can make diversity and inclusion a top priority, so that everyone feels comfortable being more authentic at work. And leaders need to listen and validate as much as possible to ensure different views and opinions are acknowledged and valued.
  • Foster teamwork and an inclusive culture. Research has also highlighted the importance of teamwork and an inclusive culture, alongside the needs of individuals, in combating imposter syndrome; strong relationships with one’s leaders and colleagues, based on open and honest communication; and a culture where people feel respected and valued. 
  • Use a trusted mentor or coach to help us understand the barriers to success in ourselves as leaders or in our staff, including the ways in which our state of mind can either hold us back or allow us to thrive and flourish, and how we can experience a greater sense of efficacy and agency in our professional lives. Leaders can access clinical psychology coaching or encourage their direct reports to do so, or model fact-based assessments in performance planning. 
  • Some self-doubt is normal. Ultimately, the goal is not to never feel like an imposter. Most people experience moments of self-doubt, that’s absolutely normal, but the skill is to choose not to engage with the doubt and let it control and dictate your behaviour, and to spot in those you lead where self-doubt might be unfounded and holding them back.