After publishing her 11th book, writer, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou admitted that after each one, she still thinks, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody”. Liz Bingham, a diversity and inclusion champion and award-winning business woman has thought, “What are you doing here? What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to be found out.” Even Tom Hanks has admitted, “No matter what I’ve done, there comes a point where you think, when are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?”.
Imposter syndrome is a term coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and describes a feeling most of us have experienced. While there’s no official diagnosis, the phenomenon is a form of self-doubt – and has a real impact on the 82% of people who experience it. An affliction of high-achievers, imposter syndrome is the fear that personal accomplishments are the outcome of luck or oversight, not merit and achievement. While imposter syndrome can affect anyone, these waves of doubt disproportionately impact women and women of colour.
The double whammy: the role of overconfidence in leadership
A recently published study revealed that, when asked about past performance, men tend to inflate their results at double the rate of women. The study first asked students to complete a set of maths problems; the men and women performed about the same. When asked to recall their performance a year later, most students overestimated theirs. However, while women consistently exaggerated their performance by 15%, men did it by twice as much.
Next, researchers divided participants into teams and asked them to choose a representative to compete against other teams in a maths challenge. Both women and men were willing to exaggerate their capabilities to bag the role; however, because women didn’t do it to the same degree, they were selected a third less often than their abilities would indicate.
If natural overconfidence is a factor in men being overrepresented in leadership roles, then the underconfidence associated with imposter syndrome is arguably a weight holding women down a few rungs. 🪜 Feel unfair? Both genders in the study mistook confidence for competence. We’re all guilty of attribution bias, so one thing we can do today is changing how we see and present ourselves.
Expose imposter syndrome for the imposter that it is
Change your critical inner voice
Most of us have an ongoing internal commentary, and this inner dialogue can skew to be harsh and judgemental. Anne Elder-Knight, a leading New Zealand-based leadership coach, often gets her clients to complete a simple exercise. They are asked to spend 2 minutes listing their flaws on a piece of paper, and then to do the same with their strengths. Set a timer and try it yourself to get an (often shocking) understanding of your internal dialogue.
Once you’re aware of your critical inner voice, you can start to change it. While positive affirmations may feel like the domain of influencers, scientific evidence supports their role in changing how you view yourself. Start small, and pick an affirmation to say when your feet hit the floor each morning (this article gives a nice overview of how it works).
Seek out examples
Adding to our blindspots is the adage that you can’t be what you can’t see – minorities often lack visible examples of people like them succeeding in their chosen paths. While we can’t immediately change a top-heavy structure of white males, we can actively seek out examples of leaders who look like us or an environment that normalises our dreams. For the successful duo at Girls That Invest, this meant subscribing to endless podcasts before launching their own. Surrounding themselves with podcasts tricked their brains into believing everyone was already doing it, which made it much easier for them to think they could too.
Celebrate successes and share failures
People who struggle with impostor feelings tend to brush off their accomplishments, which only exacerbates self-doubt. While we think we know ourselves better than anyone else, research shows we really don’t. Numerous studies have shown that our coworkers are often better than us at picking our personality traits. Yet another reason is to ask for feedback – and pay extra attention to the good bits!
Have you ever told someone something embarrassing about yourself? How often do you find out they have experienced something similar? Sharing failures can be a real confidence boost because most of us are guilty of comparing our insides with others’ outsides. Take Canva, for example. Just a decade after its launch, the company was valued at over $50 billion, and Melanie Perkins, the attractive, young founder, is now the second richest woman in Australia. All very glossy, but that story doesn’t include the 100 rejections Perkins endured on her path to the top. Starting conversations about failure makes us realise that we are all experiencing bumps along the way – and can put our abilities in perspective.
30 second action
The next time you need to do something out of your comfort zone, spend 30 seconds beforehand talking to yourself in the third person as a coach might. Studies have shown that this simple action can change your critical inner language into what you’d offer as a supportive and helpful friend.
Want more on Imposter syndrome?
Learn the history and some surprising facts that might make you question whether this ‘syndrome’ is a syndrome at all. Listen to episode 3 of the PowrUp podcast:
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