27 August 2019 by Dr Terri Simpkin
The impostor phenomenon is a cyclical experience associated with a recurring set of behaviours and thought patterns
The recent ICSA conference was a breath of fresh air. Given that the theme was ‘The Future Board’, topics of diversity and inclusion were not presented as an esoteric bolt on to the necessary activities of the board, but as an implicit and imperative consideration of them. However, while threads of discussion pointed directly to a heightened recognition of the importance and benefits of inclusive business and governance practices, Denise Wilson OBE, Chief Executive of the Hampton-Alexander Review, identified that most organisations have a lot of work to do to embed gender diversity at their most senior levels. She discussed results from the Hampton-Alexander Report which tells of an improving but somewhat pedestrian advancement towards diversity at the most senior levels of organisations.
It’s entirely correct that we should be questioning why many organisations are flagging regarding representation of women, but broader diversity must be the end game. Boards and other leadership structures must represent the communities they serve, and this suggests that the ‘future board’ is needed now.
While organisations struggle with a new normal of continual change, disruptive emergent business models and critique of the very notion of the corporate structure, and as we stride headlong into Industry 4.0, the need for different ways of thinking, working and behaving has rarely been more pressing.
Such an uncertain landscape is fertile ground for the impostor phenomenon (it’s not a syndrome). Often thought of as an individual issue of self-doubt, over forty years of research on the topic illustrates that it is a much more significant factor than we might realise. Arguably, in the broadest sense, impostor experiences may well be making a profound contribution to the seemingly intractable, perhaps wicked, problem of a lack of diversity in many organisations generally, and specifically at board level.
A recent raft of social and populist media articles has been offering up a view of what the ‘imposter syndrome’ is. They often suggest that if people (and women in particular) could just find their confidence and believe in themselves and ‘follow their star’, they’ll be sliding into the roles they most covet; perhaps even making it to the board and feeling comfortable and powerful with it.
But, sadly, it’s not quite as simple as that. Painting it as a less complex matter, easily resolved by just recognising inherent competence, diminishes the gravity of the experience. In fact, much of what is described as ‘impostor syndrome’ isn’t ‘impostor syndrome’ at all. It’s self-doubt and much less insidious.
The impostor phenomenon (IP) is often contextual and therefore can be crippling in one situation and non-existent in another. Research suggests that it is associated with an unhealthy fascination with perfectionism, self-handicapping, stress, burnout and anxiety. People experiencing IP genuinely do not recognise or accept their own successes and achievements and therefore are unlikely to articulate their full potential to others. Often over-sensitive to shortcomings, perceived (but not always real) failure sticks like Velcro while success and praise slide off like Teflon.
Discussion with people as part of my own research identifies that IP prevents people from self-identifying for promotions. They believe themselves to be less than competent in their role today and a promotion would have them exposed as the phoney they are tomorrow. Despite an outwardly recognised track record of success and achievement, people experiencing the impostor phenomenon are likely to understate their value to the organisation, will settle for lower pay increments or rewards and dismiss praise as the result of some other external factor such as luck, the work of others or some form of mistake.
Set against the issues highlighted by the Hampton-Alexander Review and a raft of other reports lamenting the slow move to genuinely diverse boards globally, it’s time that potential implications of impostor experiences be examined more seriously. Despite a good deal of investment and energy put into diversity and inclusion practices, IP is a probable contributor to issues that are known to be preventing these practices from gaining more traction and achieving better outcomes.
One of the most frequently identified impediments to diversity in workplaces and on boards is the lack of a pipeline to draw on. Indeed, whether it be gender or other aspects of diversity (e.g. social class, neurodiversity, race) having a broad enough pool of candidates to draw from is key. However, looking at gender as an example, we know that across sectors there is a marked decline in women moving from entry level to middle management and then again from middle to senior leadership roles.
The stories of women I’ve interviewed suggest that the pressing fear of failure (despite past successes and achievement), the exposure to greater scrutiny and the lack of ‘people like me’ in similar roles fuels the feeling of anxiety about applying for promotional opportunities. Other interviewees have also suggested that they’d dismissed ambitions for advancement and rationalised away thoughts of being suitable for senior roles only to find that someone less competent
Impostor phenomenon experiences will strip individuals of their self-efficacy – the capacity to act on inner self-confidence in the face of fear of failure, the scrutiny of others and anxiety about being more visible.
One of the most tragic of paradoxes of the IP experience is the common self-awareness that impostor behaviours are unhelpful and diminishing the capacity for self-confidence, professional satisfaction and enjoyment of work itself. Research participants told stories of being frustrated by their self-limiting beliefs but also of an incapacity to stop them. They told of the internal anger at being passed over for promotion, but knowing too, that they’d feel like a faker in a more senior role. Their stories identified that they knew they could do more, be more, achieve more, but their internal ‘impostor’ would not allow it. One woman suggested that secretly she knew she could ‘take on the world’ but she was terrified of being found out as a fake despite an externally validated track record of success.
Common workplace structures and processes are often cited as being ‘grist for the mill’ of IP. Research participants spoke of being unable to fully engage with performance management and professional development processes, for example. Instead, they reported under-stating their achievements and passing full credit for work well done to others.They suggested that they’d pass over important achievements that could have contributed to an evidence base illustrating their full capacities and undervalued their efforts to important projects. Simply put, the value of people who experience IP is often ‘airbrushed’ away.
Eminently capable people are, therefore, not recognised, not rewarded and not considered when the talent pipeline is scrutinised to fill senior or board roles.
Traditional people processes may well be failing organisations that have never before needed a more circumspect view of talent and capability.
In a time of extraordinary uncertainty, our organisations and the communities they serve have need of the robust creativity and insight that comes with capable, diverse leadership. To populate our boards with the talent capable of delivering this, our organisations must strip away the impediments to talent recognition fuelled by impostor behaviours and other inherent, often invisible barriers.