Just Shake it off and Carry On – Impostor Syndrome and C-Suite Execs

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Impostor Syndrome

There is a unique expectation of C-level management. Executives at board level are expected to not only make decisions but make them without the safety net afforded to others. Decisive action is part of the job but does this mean imposter syndrome is not a problem for C-suite execs?

Getting the imposter in context

Imposter syndrome, to use a rather generalised overview statement, is a constant or recurring doubt in your own abilities resulting in feelings of being unworthy of your position or role. The destructive results of this range from a manageable level of mental discomfort through to a stifling indecisiveness. While it is not considered a diagnosable mental illness, it is nonetheless a serious problem because it produces feelings of inadequacy and often an inability to celebrate achievements fully. These feelings, in turn, increase the likelihood of stress-related problems and even full burnout issues.

According to a recent study, 82% of people experience imposter syndrome, and ironically, it is generally considered to be more prevalent amongst high achievers. On a day-to-day basis, the self-doubt and fear of inadequacy are perhaps more likely to be an issue at board level than anywhere else in an organisation. In fact, the high incidence of the phenomena speaks volumes about how seriously we need to take it.

Bringing the ‘imposter’ into the light

One of the most concerning aspects of the imposter syndrome phenomenon is that, according to a range of research, it is more prevalent amongst women, transgender and minority workers. The prevailing theory is that there is an additional pressure on some people to ‘perform’ twice. Once as a professional and again as a high-achieving, successful representative of a minority. This can lead (again to oversimplifying a much more complex issue) to an internal dialogue of comparing any success with the existing hegemony of white male management. Many people are now saying that this raises a further question of whether imposter syndrome is an unfair assessment or a fair way to measure this problem.

Is it fair to assess something as a personal response if the cultures and traditions of the workplace are actually reinforcing that belief? That said, imposter syndrome is not restricted to any one group of people and, as we have already recognised, is a board-level issue as much, and possibly more than anywhere else. Something that is reported on that scale clearly needs to be addressed.

The first thing to do to combat the effects of this sabotaging feeling that there is an imposter within is to bring it into focus.

That means recognising that:

  • Imposter syndrome is a real thing that needs to be dealt with
  • It potentially affects everyone and anyone
  • It is prevalent and very common amongst C-Suite executives
  • There is no weakness in recognising these feelings
  • Focusing in on facts is important and can be supportive
  • Success needs to be recognised and celebrated by individuals
  • It is important to eradicate attitudes that skew your opinion of yourself
  • There is a difference between humility and fear of success
  • Luck happens, but it is not the only driver of success

This could mean putting practical steps in place such as:

  • Ensuring C-suite execs have a forum to discuss their feelings in context
  • Issuing guidelines about language choices that reinforce feelings of self-doubt
  • Less emphasis being placed on perfection and more on achievement
  • Methods of tracking success and recognition of reasonable set goals
  • Awareness training in how to accept praise, success and how to give the same to others.
  • Personal training in recognising the effects of imposter syndrome and its relationship to stress, burnout, and other mental wellness issues.

Imposter syndrome often does need to be addressed in the boardroom. Hesitance and self-doubt are, of course, destructive in themselves; however, there is an additional dimension relating to the mental wellness of those sitting around the table. The boardroom can be a lonely place, but one key element of dealing with the negative emotions and attitudes of imposter syndrome is sharing them. The traditional attitude of ‘just shaking off the doubt and carrying on’ could well be a barrier to this. It may even require a fundamental shift in mindset to begin the process. However, reduced incidence of burnout and other stress-related problems alone will make it worthwhile in the long term.

While it may not be possible to totally eradicate imposter syndrome at the top level of management, recognising it thrives in a high-pressure environment can be the start of a journey to alleviate its negative effects.

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