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Impostor Syndrome in Times of Crisis | Part 1: Can this paradox be good for business?

AUTHOR: Mădălina Vilău
Leadership Facilitator, Business Consultant, Managing Director @Marketing Insiders Group

In a world of change and uncertainty, business competitiveness and pressure to deliver, grow, and exceed expectations are rising and rising. This is visibly impacting professionals and leaders across most industries. The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the global economy crisis are influencing the Impostor Syndrome movement to spread more and more, challenging the well-being of individuals and the real health of organizational cultures, worldwide.

But what exactly is this impostor phenomenon? Wikipedia defines it as „a psychological occurrence in which people doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as frauds. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this do not believe they deserve their success or luck.” It is very common for high-achieving individuals.

To put it frankly it is that little voice inside that always says „You can’t”, „You are not worthy”, „You are not good enough”, “They’re on to you” – regardless of past results, professional know-how and life achievements, a deceiving narrative that keeps you circling inside a dangerous comfort zone, away from taking chances on yourself, on your dreams, away from living a full, peaceful, and happy life. Impostor Syndrome is also an instrument of self-sabotage that keeps you in „fight” mode, fuelling the need to always prove yourself to others. This can lead to mental distress, burnout, social anxiety, and missed opportunities.

Most people experience impostorism at some point in their lives. However, leaders and innovators usually are the ones that take it to a very destructing stage by manifesting a crushing level of self-doubt and self-criticism.

A 2022 KPMG study highlights that 75% of female executives experienced impostor syndrome in their careers. However, make no mistake, Impostor Syndrome does not discriminate it can take over anyone, big or small. Sometimes the bigger the validation, the bigger the reputation – the bigger the internal struggle.

Howard Schultz, Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama, Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Matt Higgins, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, etc. – are just a few examples of iconic people that talked about their irrational experiences related to impostorism.

A better understanding of the mechanics behind impostorism can empower us to control it. Dr Valerie Young, the co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute, categorized people who experience the syndrome into five main groups:

1. The perfectionists | behavioral profile: setting very high expectations for themselves and goals that are almost impossible to meet, only to attribute too much importance to small mistakes or shortcomings (e.g. reaching “only” 99% of objectives)
2. The natural geniuses | behavioral profile: always top of their class and successful in most of their endeavors, when faced with adversity and the need to actually struggle for success they label themselves as “not good enough”.
3. The rugged individualists | behavioral profile: these soloists see asking for help as a sign of weakness or as a lack of professionalism, believing that success must be achieved alone as getting assistance “invalidates” their contribution or knowledge.
4. The experts | behavioral profile: thirsty, always-learning researchers dominated by the unrealistic, inhumane pressure to know everything in their field, at all times; also, very restrained from trying new paths or speaking up about topics that they are not “experts” at.
5. The superheroes | behavioral profile: “super-persons” that need to work harder than everyone else in order to be (self) validated. They expect more from themselves than from others in order not to feel like “frauds” or deceivers.

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Maya Angelou

Impostor Syndrome is a controversial subject as it can cause serious damage and hardships to people on a personal level if it is not managed and shaped toward positive things through education and mentoring. It can also be used for unethical purposes of control and exploitation.

From a strictly-business perspective, it can build up or bring down an entire organizational culture, as it is highly contagious. You can literally go from a people-first, growth mindset – to toxic, exploiting, overly competitive, and KPI-driven environments. Exploiting fear, insecurity, and lack of self-confidence to get people to overwork can only take you so far, this is not a long-lasting strategy and it always backfires.

It is always a question of choice – who you want to be as a company versus how much money you will make. Having the best of both worlds is attainable by investing in people through recurring training and/or coaching programs, and periodical auditing sessions for spotting operational and cultural vulnerabilities. Your teams will do the rest, and profit will follow. Nothing beats happy, educated employees. No exception.

Can impostorism patterns be used for good? Definitely, if you apply solid leadership principles and tactics it can benefit you and the company you represent. Here’s a glimpse of what the “Impostor Within” can actually do FOR you – not against you, if you get your mind in the right space: increased problem-solving performance and creative thinking, better relationships, more knowledge, less egocentricity, more personal and professional growth, better overall business results, etc.

Changing the narrative of the story you tell yourself every day is a matter of choice followed by discipline that creates healthy habits. The key is to stop to acknowledge the syndrome and to choose to use it to better your life. From there it’s just a matter of getting out of your head for a bit, by learning more about Impostor Syndrome and by really, really listening to outside perspectives from people you trust and look up to. Letting go of (self-made) fear and embracing (well-earned) confidence will unleash your growth at the right time, in the right place, and in the right company.

“It is not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you are not.” Denis Waitley

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