Even leaders can feel like they’re ill-equipped to do their jobs.
It’s called Imposter Syndrome, and it occurs when successful and highly capable professionals feel they don’t deserve their accomplishments, that they faked their way to success. It’s not just newly appointed leaders who face it — many individuals who doubt their skills are senior-level leaders at the top of their industry.
“They feel like one of these days they’re going to be ‘found out’ even if they’ve had 20 or 15 year career,” said Portia Mount, senior vice president of global marketing and chief of staff at the Center for Creative Leadership.
Mount co-authored a book called “Beating the Imposter System” with Authentic Leadership Alliance CEO Susan Tardanico. She talked with Chief Learning Officer about what learning leaders can do to identify and help those afflicted so they stop harming their organizations’ functions. Edited excerpts follow.
How do learning leaders identify managers with Imposter Syndrome?
Listen to how they describe their circumstances; that’s where it comes out. We saw more than 60 percent would qualify as having imposter syndrome, and these are executives we’ve coached over the last three years.
It’s identified in executive coaching setting, and many top professionals may be getting feedback that they are micromanaging, they don’t take risks, they take too long to make decisions, they tend to overwork or over-prepare. Oftentimes these behaviors happen because the individual is so afraid they … will end up looking bad.
Who is most likely to have this mindset?
It can impact anyone, male or female. It doesn’t discriminate. However, I will say me and my co-author see it impact women the most. Very successful, high achieving women are the only ones at the top of their organization. During that process of working to get where they are they may have had credentials or experience challenged, or they think they have to prove they should be there.
What kind of negative impacts can lack of confidence in leaders have on their organizations?
An executive who suffers from imposter syndrome, they don’t delegate well and tend to micromanage. The team feels like their boss doesn’t have confidence in them and might make decisions without consulting with their boss because they know they’re constantly dissatisfied with work. Teams cannot be high-performing teams experiencing a manager like that.
If Imposter’s Syndrome is hard to diagnose but still negatively impacts a team, how are learning leaders supposed to “cure” leaders with it?
The executive coaching setting is probably one of the best ways because it is a highly personal issue. This is not the kind of thing you talk about at a team meeting because executives or professionals experiencing it are self-conscious about not wanting to look stupid or incapable in front of peers.
We talk about four steps of approaching the problem:
1. Focus on the facts. One-to-one coaching sessions with a superior or boss look at the person’s career and objectively assesses his or her capabilities and achievements. It’s fundamental, but oftentimes these individuals will completely deny success they had. They’ll say “I just got lucky,” but if you look at their last four performance reviews, it becomes very difficult to believe they got to their current position through luck. Talk to people around them for concrete examples of what style performer they are.
2. Challenge limiting beliefs. “I have to have gone to an Ivy League school to be a VP.” “I have to be from the Northeast to fit in at this company.” “I have to speak five languages.” Look at what beliefs are limiting and challenging them.
3. Get clear on strengths. These individuals are high-achieving, goal-oriented and success-oriented but only focus on weaknesses and failures. Talk about those strengths and development opportunities. They will inevitably zero in on failures, but you need to catalogue what those strengths are to negate the belief they don’t have the intelligence or skills to be where they are right now.
4. Talk about it. Provide a safe and confidential environment in which they can talk about their struggles. Oftentimes professionals don’t show any flaws or weaknesses, and that’s the wrong thing to do. Find an executive coach, maybe someone who’s a colleague who can be an objective sounding board. (These leaders) need to get out of their heads and talk to someone in a safe and confidential environment.