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Imposter syndrome: Why ‘presenting positive’ doesn’t work

Illustration of businessman and businesswoman each holding a mask on a stick. Picture courtesy of Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay|Hilary Rowe, Aurora50 coaching partner|Hilary Rowe, Aurora50 coaching partner, in a Pathway20 workshop|Michelle Obama quote on imposter syndrome:
Editor 14 March 2023
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When I ran a day-long group coaching session for Aurora50, I did not intend to get into imposter syndrome, writes coach Hilary Rowe. Yet it turned out to be the most powerful session.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term ‘impostor syndrome’ in the Seventies.
It describes that feeling of being a fraud. Those suffering think they’re going to be ‘found out’ – that they are not really competent, and that they are not entitled to their accomplishments.

70% of adults suffer imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is linked to perfectionism and anxiety, and afflicts women more than men. Successful people tend to suffer more.
Some 25 to 30 percent of high achievers may suffer from imposter syndrome. And 70 percent of adults may experience it at least once, according to research.
Yet, of the women I was coaching, several had never heard of the phrase – and were adamant they did not suffer from it.
[Do you think your employees or leaders are suffering from imposter syndrome? Talk to us about solutions.]

Vulnerability as a development area

Pathway20 is a 12-month accelerator for early-stage women board directors looking to expand their board portfolio. It connects women to at least 20 boards, giving them network access to board members. This is often the issue in them gaining further board roles.
Leadership insight diagnostics are run on board competencies, strengths and development areas for new Pathway20 participants.
All the women I coached had four key development areas: make themselves more vulnerable; deal better with uncertainty; be less conflict-avoidant; and present themselves authentically, rather than always presenting positively.
Hilary Rowe, Aurora50 coaching partner, in a Pathway20 workshop

‘Presenting positive’ a cultural issue

Particularly in this region, ‘presenting positive’ can be an issue for women. They smile and do not admit to any struggles.
We used an exercise on the best or worst day of your life to kick off discussions. Some raw and intimate stories were revealed; participants showed both trust and vulnerability.
This is similar to what happens in a board setting or any meeting around a table. How, for instance, do you support a CEO feeling vulnerable in their first time in charge?

Five imposter archetypes:

  1. Perfectionist: Has to have everything go 100 percent right. Anything that has the potential for any error or failure will mean they do not start the task. They cannot risk even a one percent chance of something not being perfect. A very debilitating imposter type.
  2. Superhero: Feels they have to be a super mum, a super exec, a super sister, super daughter… High-achieving men and women with superhero syndrome can put excessive energy into doing many things, trying to be good at everything. Really, they don’t feel good at anything inside.
  3. Expert: Seeks to be knowledgeable at everything. Feels like a failure when they have any gaps in their knowledge.
  4. Natural genius: Tend to be those people to whom everything came naturally early on. They sailed through exams without revising, and set a pattern to achieve with minimal effort. This creates a lot of internal pressure as natural geniuses move into their business lives. It produces a sense of shame when things get difficult, or when business circumstances change (such as during the pandemic). With no playbook, they start to have moments of self-doubt or withdrawal.
  5. Soloist: Doesn’t want help with anything and is very independent. The soloist sees asking for help as being weak or failing. They disguise things they’re struggling with in business. A soloist can be tough for a board – they don’t know how to contribute to the group or solve together.
Particularly in this region, ‘presenting positive’ can be an issue for women. They smile and do not admit to any struggles.
Hilary Rowe, Aurora50 coaching partner

How to counter your imposter syndrome

But there are ways to counter it – either by yourself or by helping someone else as their manager, leader or as a fellow board member:
  • Remember successes: Tracking success for yourself or others is hugely useful. It reminds those suffering from imposter syndrome why they are qualified for the role they’re in.
  • Distinguish humility from fear: It’s one thing to be humble (and that’s a good thing). It’s quite another to withdraw altogether from work, because you fear being found out. You have to become self-aware enough to work the difference out.
  • Acknowledgement: Accept that imposter syndrome can crop up, just like any other self-doubt or inner self-talk (which we all have). Don’t waste energy on it or let it become self-destructive. Just say to yourself, “Oh yes, I remember you. You’re here because I should be here. I should be effective in this position.”
  • Don’t let it hold you back: Yes, you may suffer imposter syndrome but you should continue to say “yes” to opportunities. Get stuck in, and learn through the process.
  • Talk it out: Talk to a mentor, a coach, your manager. This is a good coping mechanism, to explore where imposter syndrome is coming from and how to manage it.
  • Know you’re not alone: You are probably with someone else suffering imposter syndrome in any meeting. Women think men don’t have this issue, but I’ve coached lots of men waiting to be ‘found out’ too. They don’t think they should be in a CEO or CFO position – and they’re waiting to be pranked. Yes, that goes for board directors too.
Hilary Rowe, Aurora50 coaching partner
Women think men don’t have this issue, but I’ve coached lots of men waiting to be ‘found out’ too. They don’t think they should be in a CEO or CFO position – and they’re waiting to be pranked.
Hilary Rowe, Aurora50 coaching partner
The superhero and the perfectionist resonated particularly in our group.

How managers can tackle imposter syndrome

Aurora50 also covers imposter syndrome in Table Talks. These are our curated group conversations to encourage diverse perspectives and champion diversity of thought. They form part of organisations’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies.
Within Table Talks, for instance, we raise awareness about the impact of imposter syndrome on the business. This can include creating a reactive culture and affecting retention.
This helps teams identify potential triggers within their own working environment. And managers learn how to identify the signs and how to tackle imposter syndrome.
[Do you have imposter syndrome in your business? Talk to us about ways to tackle it.]

Make ‘imposters’ see their effectiveness

If you spot someone in a meeting being quieter than other participants – not contributing to the discussion although they are clearly a subject matter expert – they are probably feeling like an imposter.
Reach out, have an offline discussion, talk about their contribution and effectiveness, and how they’re benefiting the group.
At the end of this coaching session, one participant said, “This module gave me a safe place to take an inwards look at my leadership capability.” Powerful feedback.
Hilary Rowe is an Aurora50 coaching partner. She is an accredited leadership coach and trained Hogan Assessor, with an MSc in executive coaching and a BSc in psychology. Ms Rowe lives and works in Abu Dhabi and has served on boards herself. She has over 25 years of HR and change management experience. Ms Rowe formerly led the global learning and development team at Barclays Bank, then became director of HR for a leading Gulf financial institution. She led the organisational change and transformation within Exxon Mobil’s joint venture with Qatar Petroleum.