Natalie Ferres, director of strategic leadership firm Bendelta and leadership development expert, spoke to HC
about this psychological condition which was surprisingly rampant amongst leaders.
“It’s a combination of fear of failure mixed with a fear of success,” she said.
“Psychological research has found that imposter syndrome is most common in high achieving people. Given that high achieving people are more likely to rise to leadership positions, this means there are a lot of them in the business world at any one time.”
One study in the Harvard Business Review
– which surveyed over 100 CEOs and executives – revealed that the biggest fear was being found to be incompetent, she said.
“If anyone’s felt like this, they can take comfort that they’re not alone,” she assured.
“For the vast majority of people, including otherwise capable leaders, it shouldn’t be seen as a pathological condition or necessarily negative all the time.”
This is because the syndrome can push people to work harder and become more diligent, she added.
“Someone displaying imposter syndrome in one situation may sometimes believe she’s brilliant, creative and special. If those attacks get more frequent however, the negative impacts are cumulative and people can become affected with chronic self-doubt.”
When imposter syndrome reaches debilitating levels, an individual can exhibit approval-seeking behaviour, workaholism and diminished confidence, Ferres said. The individual can also downplay their success, avoid responsibility and pass up career development opportunities.
The key thing to remember is that internal voice – the critic – can actually be useful if harnessed correctly, she said.
“One way you can respond to that voice is to be aware that the feeling actually indicates some positive things about you – a higher level of self-awareness. It can also bring professional benefits in terms of hard work and breeding success.”
For people who think imposter syndrome is more of a hindrance than a help, Ferres had the following tips:
- Become mindful of your imposter mode. Look at the triggers, what the critic typically says and what your responses are
- Name your feelings and recognise that this is imposter syndrome. Don’t judge yourself negatively and remember this is common amongst leaders
- Create a ‘go to phrase’ when you hear that internal voice. For example, you can say, “Just because I feel incompetent now does not mean I am a bad leader”
- Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion. Think about how you would respond to a friend in the same situation instead of beating yourself up
As for what HR can do, it is crucial to recognise what lies behind the choices and behavior of your employees, Ferres said.
“Imposter syndrome could be a driver for an otherwise high performer not putting their hat in the ring for a promotion for example.”
By creating robust talent identification and development programs, HR can iron out any biases which may occur due to imposter syndrome, she said.
“Ensure that your leadership development programs focus not just on capability-building and superficial level knowledge but servicing the underlying psychological drivers like imposter syndrome for individuals and teams to function most effectively.
“Building self-awareness and emotional intelligence should continue to be fundamental for leadership effectiveness and resilience.”
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“If you’ve ever had the convincing feeling that your success has been the result of pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes and that you’ll be found out, you could be prone to imposter syndrome.”