In a recent coaching conversation, a superbly talented young female executive told me that she was racked by the fear of being ‘found out’ for not having the talent and skills that had contributed to her recent promotion. ‘I have imposter syndrome,’ she said.
Our pre-disposition as humans to label and categorise the world generally helps us to navigate it successfully. But there are also times when the easy way backfires. Imposter syndrome is one such label, frequently used, but thoroughly unhelpful. Psychologising common experiences leads to ‘blaming the victim’ and failure to address broader cultural and systemic causation.
Imposter syndrome is so common, even having a certain cachet, yet before you choose to use it again, you need to know this:
- There is no such thing as imposter syndrome; it is not a psychological condition or diagnosis.
- Feeling like an imposter is a common experience that according to the American Psychological Association up to 82 per cent of people feel. From time to time, pretty much all of us have doubts about our worthiness, our legitimacy, or feel undeserving of success.
- Feeling like an imposter is more prevalent among women and minorities, and we need to understand why.
None of this means that the young executive didn’t feel what she felt, because she did. What it does mean is that by taking her context into account, there were different, more powerful ways to label her experience and improve how she felt about herself and her success.
No such thing as imposter syndrome
Melis Muradoglu and Andrei Cimpian pick up the research started by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s when they first named imposter phenomenon:
‘Bright, capable, accomplished women who doubt they have earned their success, who feel that their success and achievements are a result of luck. They are concerned that this will be discovered and they will be outed as an imposter.'
It’s noteworthy that the original researchers didn’t call it a syndrome but a phenomenon – but we just love a label!
What’s much more powerful is to contextualise what is happening. Feeling like an imposter is for many women linked to identity threat – it is more prevalent in contexts that are inhospitable to women, and where gender stereotypes suggest that women don’t fit, or don’t have the same capabilities as men. Identity threat results in feelings of exclusion and stigma.
Muradoglu and Cimpian’s study showed that gender differences in imposter feelings were larger when ‘brilliance’ – innate talent – was seen as critical for success. Women felt less valued and accepted, and more disrespected, in their fields. Those effects were exacerbated for minority women. Women also felt less likely to succeed in the future.
When it feels like it’s ‘man’s world’, women feel a lower level of interest and sense of belonging, as well as stronger imposter feelings. Other research shows that when the context is altered to be more welcoming and less competitive, gender gaps in interest and belonging reverse.
How to reduce imposter feelings
To make women and minorities more welcome in your occupation, discipline or organisation, consider how you define success. Treating talent as innate and focusing on brilliance as necessary to success, can raise the likelihood of imposter feelings. This means redefining success in more inclusive ways.
Competitiveness, aggression and independence are related to increased imposter feelings so check your language, and balance it with cooperation, support and collegiality.
Ensure there are diverse role models, and make them visible.
When people share their experience as an imposter, you can validate their feelings and then help them to reframe them. Discover what would help them to feel more confident about their successes, and help to make contextual changes that will support them.
If you experience feeling like an imposter:
- Work on shifting your own experience. Get out of your own head, understand how your context affects how you see yourself, and remind yourself of your past success.
- Advocate, as you can, for change in how your context, and success in your context, is defined.
- Recognise that, given your success, others don’t see you as a fraud. Use mentors, colleagues and friends to help you remind yourself of your capabilities and successes.
- Do the same for others, as that also helps recognise and remind you of your own success.
In summary, let’s stop using the term imposter syndrome, and look for alternative explanations for the experience of these feelings. Given their prevalence among women and minorities, consider the possible contextual and systemic conditions that give rise to such common feelings.
When we do that, it’s possible to identify actions that prevent people from feeling like imposters, help them reframe what’s happening when they do, and identify actions that will help people to claim and appreciate their successes.
Karen Morley is a distinguished executive coach, an authority on leadership coaching and a thought leader on inclusive leadership. She is the author of FlexAbility: how high achievers beat burnout and find freedom in an overworked world, Beat Gender Bias, Lead Like a Coach, and Gender-Balanced Leadership.