Visualise a young person close to you, this could be your son / daughter / nephew / niece / friend’s child. Imagine they really want to get into the A team for the sport they play. Their sport might be cricket, netball, tennis – the sport is not important, I simply want you to imagine, that this young person, who is dear and important to you, has a dream to get into the ‘A’ team. You know they have talent and potential and you watch them train really really hard, they practice their sport, show up for the training, practice at home, practice with their friends, watch youtube videos of great players and work really hard to achieve their dream. After 12 months of continued effort, they finally make it into the ‘A’ team.
Would you then turn around and say to them – their entry into the ‘A’ team was luck, or that they didn’t really deserve to be in the team? No, I am sure you wouldn’t, so why do many women do this very thing to themselves?
In coaching I often hear amazing talented & experienced women, doubt that they deserve to be where they are, doubt their skill and question whether they warrant further career progression despite having a proven career of success.
Unfortunately more women than men put their success down to luck and harbour self-doubt that holds them back from taking the chances that would propel them forward in their career. This factor has a name which is called the Imposter Syndrome.
The term was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who were looking for a better explanation as to why high achieving women often attributed their success to luck rather than accomplishment. The term now applies to both male and female achievers who are psychologically uncomfortable with acknowledging their role in their success. This psychological discomfort is often rooted in pressures — from self or others — to achieve great success. Many psychologists, including the two that coined the term, believe this should be referred to as “impostor experience,” since it’s not a clinical diagnosis or mental illness, but rather a temporary state of being.
Typically, the stressor that triggers impostor syndrome involves a new success or opportunity. These negative thoughts, which are often referred to as ‘cognitive distortions,’ are based on fear and anxiety and not based in objective facts.
For example, in the case of interviewing for a new job, you may begin to tell yourself that you’re not really qualified — that the wins listed on your resume are just flukes, and feel worried your interviewer will somehow find that out.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t discriminate, and can happen regardless of the level of success a person has achieved. I have witnessed this in front line managers as well as Executive Leaders.
When exploring why more women than men suffer from this feeling, Maksimow, a psychologist provides the following reason- “As children, boys are socialized to be more risk takers and girls not as much, girls are socialized to be more risk averse than boys, and it often comes out in adulthood and in situations related to career. In careers that are more male dominated, women feel isolated and begin to doubt themselves and their ability to be where they are — despite the evidence that they deserve to be there.”
“Achievers might describe their success as ‘luck’ because they have been taught to not bring attention to themselves or not promote themselves as being better than others”
Those who experience impostor syndrome often find themselves locked into what’s called the “impostor cycle.”
Carla Lundblade, a clinical therapist explains it in this manner. “So-called impostors think every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help” This means perfectionism typically leads to two responses.
- An impostor may procrastinate, putting off an assignment out of fear that he or she won’t be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Or,
- She may over-prepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary.
If procrastination breeds a successful outcome, it’s written off as luck or a fluke. Success from over-preparation reinforces the idea that the “impostor” needs to work extra hard for it, and would not have succeeded otherwise.
Impostor syndrome contributes to increased self-doubt and persistent fears of failure. All up, it limits talented women from stepping into their greatness and achieving what others feel they deserve.
If this resonates with you – there is good news, you can counter imposter syndrome, the first step of which is to recognise its presence. So if you acknowledge this exists for you, step one is taken. Steps two and three are to get to the root of why this belief exists, then adjust your locus of control by making accurate assessments of your performance, then perhaps getting feedback from other leaders to confirm your strengths.
By tackling imposter syndrome or as I’d prefer to call it the imposter experience, you will be better able to develop your career and advance your leadership to support an increase in gender balance at the top.