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‘Imposter Syndrome’ can have harmful impacts on c-suite execs

Jennifer O'Brien | July 6, 2017
‘Imposter syndrome shouldn’t be seen as a pathological condition or necessarily a negative:’ Dr Ferres.


While 'imposter syndrome' is most common in high achieving women, and a constant foe, there are methods to combat the problem: Don’t let the critical voice steer you down the wrong path, and acknowledge the critic as a source of information, not a directive of truth.

That’s some of the advice dished out by Bendelta’s chief connection officer, Dr Natalie Ferres, who specialises in the role of emotional intelligence in leadership and is passionate about helping leaders overcome imposter syndrome.

Ferres weighed into the ‘imposter syndrome’ debate after a recent article in CIO Australia that said women in STEM roles are experiencing imposter syndrome. The article discussed how many women in STEM roles “feel like frauds,” and how imposter syndrome, cognitive bias during hiring, and a lack of interest are possible reasons for the drop in women in STEM roles.

CIO Australia caught up with Ferres, who for over 20 years has been studying the science of management and leadership. Her latest research involves building a framework, which unites insights about the psychological, biological and behavioural patterns of the people who are world-class in selected capabilities, such as resilience, creativity and empathy.

 What is imposter syndrome?

Natalie Ferres: Imposter syndrome is where you are seen as successful by outside external measures but internally you feel like a fraud and undeserving. This is despite being authentically talented or high-achieving. If you have ever had the feeling of being convinced that your success has been the result of fooling people around you and that you’ll soon be found out, you could have been in ‘imposter mode’. Some of the more common thoughts and feelings include, ‘I’m a fake’, ‘I’ve been lucky’, ‘I must not fail’, ‘Success isn’t important’.

Is it prevalent? And if so, why?

NF: While feeling like an imposter can strike at any stage of your career, it is most prevalent when you feel stretched out of your comfort zone. The latter is more likely to occur when you become more senior, causing an avoidance of more responsibility and a reluctance to put your hat in the ring for roles higher up the ladder.

This is reinforced by psychological research, which has found that imposter syndrome is most common in high achieving people. In my work with leaders, I’m always surprised by how often it comes up as an issue – this has included CEOs of large private entities, those at the upper echelon of the public sector and a seemingly unflappable judge.

Some of the original work in this area points to imposter syndrome being most common in high achieving women. It is argued that women undervalue themselves or avoid putting themselves forward whereas some men tend to wing it. 


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