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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.

How can leaders overcome imposter syndrome? What steps/measures can people take to combat it?

NF: If you think imposter syndrome is more of an enemy than a helper, you can try the following strategies:

Become mindful of your imposter mode. What are the triggers? What does your inner critic say to you? What are your usual responses? Are there any patterns? Building self-awareness is the necessary foundation for change.

Name it. Name your feelings and experiences as imposter syndrome. Don’t judge it negatively. Remember that you’re in good company.

Positively reframe. By acknowledging that imposter syndrome is normal, you can help reduce ill effects. Also, create a positive go-to phrase: e.g. “just because I feel incompetent right now does not mean that I am a bad leader.”

Take a hard look at working hard. Are you compensating for something? Is it making you feel less or more worthy (noting that it can do both).

Consider your strengths. Take a look back at your accomplishments.

Practice self-compassion. You’re often harder on yourself than you are on others. Look objectively at the situation. How would you respond to a friend in the same situation?

What are some things leaders shouldn't do? 

NF: For the vast majority, including otherwise capable women and men, imposter syndrome shouldn’t be seen as a pathological condition or necessarily a negative. It’s less of a constant foe and more of a triggered response. Don’t let the critical voice steer you down the wrong path. Acknowledge the critic as a source of information, not a directive of truth.

What are the implications for people in STEM-related roles?

NF: Like a headache, imposter syndrome can be transitory and draining when it occurs, with harmful impacts on your career. When imposter syndrome reaches debilitating levels, it can result in one or more of the following:

  • Avoidance of more responsibility, as well as career and other opportunities;
  • Approval seeking behaviours and a thirst for external validation;
  • Diligence and hard work, sometimes to the point of workaholism;
  • Diminished confidence;
  • Relationships with peers being undermined;
  • Downplaying success, which can lead to others’ reduced confidence in you;
  • Obsessing about mistakes and negative feedback; and
  • Less resilience and agility.

For those in or seeking a STEM career, imposter syndrome has been inversely linked to both persistence in the field as well as the completion of STEM study programs. For STEM specialists who might err towards imposter syndrome, recognise that while you may think you’re flawed at times, so do your heroes.  

STEM specialists have often acknowledged issues that caused them to consider leaving STEM contexts, particularly after a sign of ‘failure’, or somewhat paradoxically, after a notable achievement. 

These people succeed in spite of their flaws, including feeling like a fraud or making mistakes, some of the time. It’s a person’s ability to persist and move forward that is far more important than 100 per cent confidence, 100 per cent of the time. And that’s arguably more true in STEM than in any other field.


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