Imposter syndrome – that sneaking feeling that you are not worthy – can be crippling. It is especially problematic for people who are not in the majority group. As an ally, you can help in ways large and small.
We’ve all been there. A situation in which you look around and can’t believe you’ve been admitted to the company of a group of brilliant people. Or receiving an award and feeling that the judges must have made a mistake. Or over-preparing and over-emphasizing how smart / funny / accomplished you are while at the same time feeling like a bit of a fraud.
All these things are related to imposter syndrome – the sneaky feeling that you didn’t really earn or deserve some major accomplishment or recognition. It’s related to anxiety, to the unwillingness to take risk, to avoiding new opportunities and to feelings of inferiority. It’s that voice in your head that says “you can’t do this!”
While it can be a little motivating in that it can spur you to make greater efforts, the resulting anxiety usually isn’t worth it.
Where does imposter syndrome come from?
Psychologists have reasoned that imposter syndrome, the nasty voices inside our heads telling us that we aren’t worthy, originates in our attempts to make the world make sense. When we are faced with the challenge of holding two or more conflicting beliefs values or attitudes, the result is cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable state of mind. People will go to enormous lengths not to have to grapple with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
Leon Festinger, who first describe the theory, suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behavior in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency. When we have an inconsistency, we will go to enormous lengths to resolve the tensions. Thus, people who know smoking is bad for them, but smoke anyway, will justify the behavior by suggesting that the research isn’t conclusive, quitting will make them fat, or that it’s better to life a life full of things you enjoy doing than experience deprivation. We all have a powerful desire to have a balance between our beliefs.
This, by the way, is why it is so often nearly impossible to convince someone to abandon publicly stated positions. We’ve taken a stand, and will even do ourselves immense harm before being willing to admit that the choice may not have been the most sensible. It isn’t a problem of ongoing disinformation, but of having committed to a perspective at one point, we are incredibly uncomfortable abandoning it. We’ll make up a reality if the one we have committed to doesn’t seem true.
Thus, when your environment is giving you cues that you really don’t belong to a group, or really don’t deserve an achievement or recognition, and yet you are accepted into the group and rightly won the award or recognition, our minds resolve the inconsistency by convincing ourselves that it must have been an accident.
Ironically, imposter syndrome often besets those who, by any objective standard, are outstanding achievers. They may be members of a minority group (women in a male-dominated environment). They may never have thought of themselves as particularly special. Their presence “at the table” may be something of a surprise. Or their personal situations may be unhappy enough that they assume the rest of their lives must be so affected. For instance, at a bleak time in his life, Albert Einstein confessed “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
The message “you don’t belong here”
Imposter syndrome is associated with feeling as if you are the only, or one of only a few people like you in a given situation. The only woman in a computer coding class. The only person of color on the board. The only first-generation college student in English class. Those kinds of situations.
In many ways, some overt and some more subtle, people who are not part of the dominant group are being sent the message that their presence is some kind of aberration, likely a mistake.
In fact, the original research on imposter syndrome examined high achieving professional women back in the 70’s, when women were beginning to climb the ranks of corporate organizations in large numbers for the first time. The researchers found that:
“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.”
Since then, the prevalence of imposter syndrome in groups that are not the dominant one has been explored. If you feel as though you don’t fit in or if you feel that your acceptance into a group was a matter of luck (or God forbid, a mistake!) you are much more likely to begin to doubt yourself.
Indeed, the environment can create and exaggerate any doubts one might have about one’s own abilities. As Jolie A. Doggett notes, “We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong,”
Another contributor to the anxiety of imposter syndrome is that you are looked upon as representing everybody who is your race, ethnicity or gender. As one of my clients recently found, sometimes potential sponsors for people of color or women were afraid to put their names forward because of the risk. “If they don’t work out,” the reasoning goes, “I’ll get the blame for not having made the safe choice of a white male.” In other words, if the white male didn’t work out, the sponsor didn’t get blamed because, well, that would be the normal thing to do. If the diverse candidate didn’t work out, the wisdom of their advocacy was questioned. Not only that, but the bar would be raised for any subsequent candidate with those characteristics.
And this is where imposter syndrome hurts us all. People suffering from it may not ask the question or make the observation that could have solved a thorny problem. They may hold back from asking for a raise or promotion, even if they are well qualified, leaving the role to potentially less qualified people. They may not be willing to take even small chances, lest they be “found out.” And they certainly won’t take advantage of even psychologically safe workspaces to voice contrarian views. Worst of all, they sometimes leave the field to charming narcissists – toxic colleagues who deploy social skills to advance rather than actual job performance.
Mind your introductions! And other tips
How can you, as an executive, team member, colleague or professor help those struggling with imposter syndrome to combat it? A short list of potentially useful ideas.
1. When you are introducing a colleague whom, to you, obviously belongs at a meeting, conference or other get-together, don’t assume everybody else is making that assumption. Specifically call out the accomplishments that led to your colleague being invited.
2. Listen for signals that culturally or structurally your teammates might be feeling as though they are not part of the in crowd. Discuss what it takes to “win” in your current environment and whether this definition might need to shift.
3. Recognize that people in low-power positions suffer from what Adam Galinsky terms the “low power double bind.” This is that they have less latitude for action than people in a high power situation. Some remedies? You can advocate for others – and not be punished for it. You can expand your range of potential alternatives. Create allies – for instance by asking for advice. Tap into your expertise and passion – you’re much less likely to suffer from a narrow range.
4. Reinforce your faith in your co-workers’ capabilities. This can have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. Telling people “I know you’ve got this – I have confidence in your ability to pull it off” and meaning it is powerful.
5. Gather data. Information like the average time to next career move, compared across gender and race, can be incredibly illuminating. As Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey observe, “If your company rewards vague traits like “executive presence” and “leadership skills” without measurable behaviors and skills, bias is likely to creep into advancement decisions.”
6. Use your own credibility in the organization to sponsor and mentor people who are not part of the majority group. Often, the support provided to the majority group is simply taken for granted, while the lack of support to groups not in the majority is not recognized. Tilt that balance a bit.
As Tulshyan and Burey conclude, “Let’s stop calling natural, human tendencies of self-doubt, hesitation, and lack of confidence “imposter syndrome.” If you want women to lend their full talents and expertise, question the culture at work — not our confidence at work. Instead, recognize and celebrate a variety of different leadership styles and create work cultures where all are welcome and thrive.”