Imposter Syndrome

From GILD’s  Executive Coach Shawn Comboy:

I’ve been asked about my thoughts on ‘imposter syndrome’ quite a bit recently, and the first thing I say is that it’s not a syndrome.

The concept was developed in the late 1970s and was originally—and more accurately—coined ‘imposter phenomena’. It describes what some may say are fairly normal feelings of doubt that persist and eventually evolve into feeling like a fraud at work—despite clear evidence to the contrary. It’s said to disproportionately affect high achievers and women.

So those are the facts, but what are my thoughts?

Well, I’d say first that we can all most likely relate to feeling like an ‘imposter’ at some time or other. What’s most interesting to me are those that are said to be the most ‘prone’ to it in terms of its ‘persistence’. High achievers, for example, routinely put themselves—or are put—in positions to accomplish something difficult, something new, something that’s never been done. That’s awesome—but it also means there’s no blueprint, that there’s a high probability of failure. There’s also not a lot of external validation in their worlds.

The idea of the environment and how all of us are shaped professionally over time by the cues we receive from others stands out for me as well. I think specifically about the high-achieving women I know and how they lack role models and routinely face doubt about their competence, contributions, and leadership style. Those feelings of doubt that we all have early on in our careers or as we take on a new role would normally be expected to abate over time as our intelligence and work are validated. However, for women—and for anyone who doesn’t fit into the workplace’s outdated model of leadership—that external validation, that appreciation and acceptance for what they bring to the table often never really comes.

This begs the question for me:

If we were able to ‘change the environment’—to recognize everyone for their unique strengths and contributions, to celebrate someone who was willing to take a risk—would this ‘imposter syndrome’ disappear altogether?

What do you think?

That’s what I’m focused on in my work around this topic: to both champion change in terms of the workplace and to work with women and men who are high achievers that simply need to gain ‘perspective’ to achieve their goals.


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