Ever heard of the condition called the Impostor Syndrome? It is not one of those syndromes that receive large scale media attention. It is certainly not something that receives a lot of attention in management schools, or institutes that help to train power house leaders.
So, what is the Impostor Syndrome?
According to Wikipedia the impostor syndrome (also spelled imposter syndrome), sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.
While statistics of the phenomenon may vary widely, the Global & Mail on December 22, 2014 cited numbers obtained from Portia Mount, and Susan Tardanico. They estimate the 50 to 60 per cent of persons they coached in their leadership courses were are in the midst of this malaise.
Many highly effective organizational leaders suffer from this syndrome. Reportedly, the syndrome is more likely to affect women, than men. This gender link begs an explanation which is not readily found in the literature. Sheryl Sandberg offers up one explanation. in Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead she writes “many people,” she notes, “but especially women, feel fraudulent…Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made.” While women are more likely to fall prey to the “syndrome,” men are not immune. Generally though, while men attribute their success to handwork, drive, perseverance, will and talent, women tend to question ourselves like it’s the inquisition.
Geek Feminism notes that Impostor Syndrome is “especially common in fields where people’s work is constantly under review by talented peers, such as academia or Open Source Software.” According to Geek Feminism women experiencing impostor syndrome may be less willing to put themselves forward, feeling that they are not qualified, by eg:
- not applying for jobs, promotions, and other employment opportunities
- not submitting papers to conferences or journals
- disclaiming or understating their experience/skill when speaking or writing
- nervousness about talking to others in their field, especially if those others are perceived as highly skilled/experienced
- feeling like a fraud
- worrying that someone will find out their lack of qualifications and fire them
- having higher stress
- overpreparing for tasks
- attributing successes to chance or luck
FORBES Magazine, in a spring 2014 article, noted that the Impostor Syndrome is the domain of the high achiever. Liz Bingham, managing partner Ernst & Young Ernst & Young, Academy Award winning actress Kate Winslet, Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou, Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization have all grappled with the syndrome which is recognized not to be a psychological syndrome per se.
Combing through the literature on the subject one finds a good dose of information geared towards helping the so called impostor acknowledge, own and celebrate her or his achievement. The author of the Forbes article, for instance, identifies these strategies to help ease the pressure off a person who experiences the syndrome. Specifically, the article recommended that the so called impostor: own her or his success; cease comparisons; and hold firm to ambitions. Remedies cited in the Globe & Mail article include; focussing on the facts; challenging limiting beliefs; understanding one’s strength; talk about it.
What is one to do, however, is the so called impostor is your boss? The Globe & Mail article cited above includes with the definition of Impostor Syndrome behaviours such as micromanaging, making decisions slowly, perfectionism, worrying excessively, and workaholism. Harvey Schachter of the Globe & Mail article title: How to stop Feeling Like a Fraud notes that in some cases the so called impostor “explicitly recognize these fears of inadequacy, while in others the fears are buried but expressed through their workplace behaviours—[t]heir own stress is transferred to others as they act in overly aggressive ways to achieve the high standards that might keep them from being found out.”
It cannot be very good to work under the guidance and tutelage of your boss’s constant fears of inadequacies. It can be hell for an employee, or supervisor working alongside a person suffering from the Impostor Syndrome. Those who micromanage every task not only create more work for themselves, but risk reducing other highly effective employees to clerks.
You need to thread carefully and tactically if and when you find yourself working with, or alongside an organizational leader with Impostor Syndrome. Here are some tips to manage such a boss.
- It is often not about you: Remember that the responses you get from a person with Impostor Syndrome is often not about you the employee. The so called impostor lives in a psychological space in which she or he imposes standards. Your success depends on how well you help the person achieve those standards. When you realize that the interaction between you and such a boss is less about you than it is about the boss, you are free to make yourself available to achieve any task the way that the boss prefers. Again, it really is not about you.
- Perfection is a moving standard: Recognize that perfection can and is often a moving standard. What might have been perfect two times before may not be perfect on this occasion. You as the employee need to have highly developed listening and translation skills. The extent to which you are about to listen and translate what perfection means on each occasion is you bonus.
- Approach every situation as a chance for learning: Lots have been written about surviving through uncertainties. There are plenty of opportunities to learn when working with a person with Impostor Syndrome. In the first instance, it is an opportunity for you to assess who you are as a person. Self assessment is always a good thing. It is an opportunity for you to learn patience. It is also an opportunity for you to challenge yourself and exceed the expectation that you may have imposed upon yourself in the performance of whatever task that has been thrown your way.
- Arm yourself with facts: The more you are aware of the achievements of the person with Impostor Syndrome, the more you are able to point them to the facts about their achievements, if and when the circumstances present themselves for doing so. This is the best reason to do your homework.
- Get very specific instructions before acting: Folks with Impostor Syndrome do not always have cemented ideas at the time that they first articulate them. Those who are visual learners may need to see what the end result looks like before changes are made. Getting specific instructions from the Impostor Syndrome boss gives both of you a common basis for a discussion in the event that there is a criticism that you the employee did not do precisely what was asked. Careful, how you use this information though. There is no substitute for tact and appropriate timing.
- Do not take criticisms personally: Expect criticisms. Expect plenty of them. Do not take them personally, but do take them seriously. If you are a particularly emotion type of person, finding a good mentor is not a bad idea. A good mentor can help you put things into perspectives. Remember that the criticism is not necessarily about you as a person, it is about how you have applied your skills in the performance of a task for which perfection is often sought. And you, the employee, is not the one defining perfection.
- Remember that gender matters: An organizations is a social and political laboratory. Gender issues get played out in a myriad of ways in an organization. Gender is always an issue when crafting an appropriate approach or response to your boss.