Change the way you think about imposter syndrome

Culture  Leadership
30 April, 2024

Feelings of self-doubt are often rooted in systemic bias. It’s time to stop asking women to fix this problem on their own.

Recently, I was speaking with a leader who had joined a start-up. She was incredibly accomplished and had a track record to prove it. However, she confided in me that she was experiencing serious self-doubt and questioning whether she had what it takes to make an impact in the new company. As we delved deeper into the issue, we discovered a troubling pattern of subtle biases that she was facing – like being excluded from important meetings and not being given the credit she deserved for her hard work. It was disheartening to hear that the founder was simply putting the onus on her to find a way to succeed, instead of taking responsibility for setting her up for success.

Imposter syndrome has become a common issue in the corporate world. Some years ago, I also wrote about it as part of the Monday8AM series. However, it is crucial for us to reconsider how we discuss imposter syndrome. It should not be perceived as merely a problem that women face and should take responsibility for at an individual level. A growing number of people feel that this approach is flawed. Imposter syndrome is deeply rooted in workplace bias and systemic exclusion. Therefore, we need to address these issues at their core.

So, this week, my message challenges the way we think about imposter syndrome, especially with regards to women. Is it an individual issue, or a collective one? Is the onus on each individual to tackle the problem on their own, or do organizations need to do a better job of building fair, inclusive workplaces?

As you probably already know, imposter syndrome refers to feelings of self-doubt and exclusion, centred around the fear of getting caught out as a fraud. While anyone can experience it, it has a disproportionate impact on women, especially from underrepresented groups.

(Being a high achiever doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, successful women with numerous academic and professional accomplishments may carry an even heavier load of imposter syndrome.)

From “phenomenon” to “syndrome”

Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who first developed this idea in the 1970s, called it the “imposter phenomenon”. Only later did the word “syndrome” emerge, lending weight to the view that this was an individual and internal disorder, rather than a result of systemic inequity.

Today, imposter syndrome is everywhere. A Google search brings up over 10 million results. It is the subject of countless speeches, panel discussions and self-help books. Several solutions are suggested, from self-affirmations to mentorship to coaching. No doubt some of this advice can truly help people overcome a sense of alienation and inadequacy.

But has the discussion become too one-sided? By putting the burden of addressing imposter syndrome squarely on women’s shoulders, have we overlooked the reasons that foster such feelings of fraudulence in the first place?

This is the question tackled by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi Ann Burey in their article, published in Harvard Business Review. In it, the authors make a powerful statement:
Imposter syndrome directs our view towards fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.

Indeed, workplaces have historically been designed to support the ambitions of men. When women enter these spaces, they face pushback and prejudice. Their commitment and competence are questioned, often in seemingly minor ways — death by a thousand cuts, as the saying goes. In order to fit the stereotype of success, women may feel forced to mask parts of themselves and adopt certain mannerisms. Taken together, all these factors likely contribute to feelings of un-belonging and the fear of being found out as an imposter.

Fact vs. Fiction

Here is a very interesting question I came across: is imposter syndrome even real?

It is normal to experience some nervousness and self-doubt when starting a career or a new job. For men, especially those from dominant social groups, this anxiety recedes quickly as they find their work validated and see their mirror image in role models all around them.

But for women, it’s the opposite. According to a recent KPMG survey, 75% of women executives struggle with “imposter syndrome”. This suggests that far from being an anomaly, these feelings are normal. In a world where you need to be twice as good to get half as much, self-doubt is the normal human response.

Looking at it from this point of view, we could say that “imposter syndrome” has pathologized these natural feelings, giving them an unnecessary medical tinge. It has focused the diagnosis on women — instead of the workplace.

Imposter syndrome — the “bicycle face” of our times?

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, likens imposter syndrome to “bicycle face”, a fascinating piece of not-too-distant history. In the 1890s, women in western countries were warned of a new malady. Caused by the exertion of riding a bike, “bicycle face” was said to produce a lasting expression of weariness, drawn lips, bulging eyes, clenched jaw, and dark shadows under the eyes. Bicycle face could affect anyone, but especially women.

Obviously, as we know now, there is no such thing as bicycle face. What’s interesting is that this “condition” appeared at a time when bicycles were becoming an instrument of freedom for women. Suffragettes were able to travel independently, meet each other and campaign for women’s right to vote, all thanks to the humble bicycle. They even started adopting more practical clothing, in contrast to restrictive Victorian garments.

As the status quo was threatened, the backlash happened. Along with bicycle face, doctors warned women of many other dangers if they rode a bike, including insomnia, heart problems, headaches and depression!

Saujani suggests that just like bicycle face, imposter syndrome is a convenient illusion, designed to keep an entire generation of women focused on their own apparent inadequacies rather than the energy being directed towards improving the system.

Addressing workplace triggers of imposter syndrome

As managers and leaders, we can all take steps towards creating a work culture where women can thrive without distrusting their own success. Here are three suggestions to consider:

1. Address both sides of the story.

Support your team members when they verbalise their struggles with imposter syndrome — while also broadening your scope to address the source of the problem. This is a good example of both/and thinking (as opposed to either/or thinking).

Gently probe the person’s fears around being “not good enough” and listen carefully to their experience. If you’ve dropped the ball on providing positive feedback and credit, work towards reinforcing belief in their abilities. Have a frank conversation about what success looks like in your team; this can help the person realign their thinking and direct their efforts towards more relevant areas.

While mentorship, coaching, and professional development are all valid steps, don’t stop there. As leaders, we also need to spearhead systemic changes that address the heart of the issue. Pay attention to the factors that triggered your team members’ feelings of inadequacy. What do they reveal about your team and workplace?

2. Challenge stereotypes around professionalism/leadership.

In their HBR article, Tulshyan and Buri bring up a very insightful point:

There are multiple models of leadership and confidence for men, but not many for women of color. Male leadership models range from raging tempers (former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer) to soft-spoken (Google’s Sundar Pichai), from sharp suits (French president Emmanuel Macron) to hoodies and jeans (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg). This means that we give far more latitude to a number of ways men show up and appear in the workplace…. Discrimination and bias shape our expectations of how leaders should look, sound, and act, making an invisible impact on seemingly neutral terms like “professionalism.”

Managers need to realize that the accepted models of professionalism and leadership are inherently biased against women, especially from marginalized groups. This in turn increases the pressure of “faking it” and feeling like an imposter.

We can widen our definition of these terms by challenging our biases and embracing different work and leadership styles. Just because someone doesn’t communicate or conduct themselves exactly in the way we’re used to, doesn’t mean they’re not professional and effective. Let’s focus on impact, rather than superficial markers of “executive presence”, so people can bring a fuller, more authentic version of themselves to work.

3. Implement data-driven changes.

Senior leaders, especially in HR, are uniquely placed to measure how the organization’s system and processes impact women. Employee feedback surveys with direct questions about how individuals can grow, succeed, and thrive—as well as the barriers in their way—can help you uncover important patterns. It’s also worth examining your company’s hiring practices, compensation, and time-to-promotion across different groups. What does the data tell you?

Based on the findings, establish mechanisms to tackle invisible discrimination. For example, as mentioned in the HBR article:

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… Instead, create advancement criteria that measure tangible outcomes, skills, and behaviors. Then, promote accordingly.

Many women in the corporate world experience imposter syndrome. But these widespread feelings of self-doubt usually have less to do with the person’s identity, intellect, or personality. Rather, they are rooted in the cultural biases and exclusionary practices found in our workplaces. It’s time we all turn our attention to fixing the system together.


Join the 8AM conversation