Updated: May 6
The Personal and Business Productivity Cost of Imposter Syndrome
From Young Women in Energy Article by Berkley Downey
Even though I had asked to be on the daily morning call with the executives, I felt like an imposter.
I was the only woman and director among these VPs and C level hosts. I had no history working with business dev nor the vocabulary to feel understood or understand the language of business at this level. The lead executive had been hostile about the need for a head of User Experience Design to be on his daily ‘stand up’ meeting, but when an invitation had not been forthcoming I asked for one.
My imposter syndrome was compounded by my request to sit at the decision maker’s table. I chose to make my voice heard not because I was ready, but because I cared passionately, and still do, that product designers can help solve the world's most intricate problems. My desire for their contribution to be seen, heard, and acknowledged at the highest level drove me to get on that 8.00 a.m. call and articulate the progress my team made over the last 24-hours.
I felt like a fraud for not knowing every detail of every project and a fraud for being unable to turn their insights into business-ready quantifiable results that would appease the adrenaline-fueled salesmen. On a daily basis, our work was qualitative and iterative, not quantitative. The executives and I had a fundamentally different understanding of progress.
I felt out of place.
Sure I was involved in this high-level meeting, surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds in tech - but who was I? Was I deserving of my spot at the table? Did my talent warrant my being there or did I somehow chance my way to the top?
I felt like an imposter every morning.
I started every day by experiencing a whirlwind of emotions. A former boss had told me how he felt like an imposter every time he made updates to Steve Jobs, “You say too little, he thinks you're stupid, you say too much, he thinks you're stupid.” Now I knew what he meant.
Back then I didn’t have a name for what I was feeling. Now I do.
A Particular Form of Stress - Imposter Syndrome
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one's accomplishments and/or has a fear of being exposed as a "fraud."
Imposter syndrome was identified in the 1980s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, and it affects both men and women and is common among high achievers who tend toward perfectionism. It doesn't qualify as a psychological syndrome or medical disorder, rather, it’s an internalized dialogue that makes people feel like they aren't good enough.
Imposter syndrome can happen to anyone.
The comedian and former SNL actress, Tina Fey said, “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’”
Businessman and former Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz has revealed feelings of inadequacy and unwarranted praise throughout his career. In an interview with The New York Times, Schultz said, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”
COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg shared in her book, Lean In that “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
Graphics created by Chris Do
Brain Science Behind the Emotion of Imposter Syndrome
In her book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett, says emotions are built by the brain as and when you need them. The emotions that seem to happen to you, are actually made by you, usually without any awareness on your part!
Physical changes in your body have no inherent emotional meaning. Our brains make bodily changes meaningful as an episode of emotion. Our emotions are what a situation means. They don’t cause us to act, rather they indicate how we understand the situation.
Addressing Imposter Syndrome
During the call, my brain was making meaning out of the stress, fear, anger and frustration I was experiencing in my body. My brain was doing this to predict what action I needed to take in relation to the environment.
Because the calls took place every day, I experienced stress every morning and didn’t have the skill to know how to de-stress myself after the call, so I carried the stress around with me all day. It affected my sleep, I made poor food choices, got fat and felt miserable.
According to Ann Betz in her podcast the Neuroscience of Resilient Leadership, the chemicals released into my system to manage my daily stand up calls were overstimulating and because they persisted and became chronic, they resulted in impaired functioning, poor decision making, reduced empathy levels and black and white thinking.
Adapted from Haine and Arnsten, Learning and Memory, 2008. Copyright BEabove Leadership, 2016
Today, many large companies recognize imposter syndrome as a productivity killer and provide education and training for young achievers to break the silence. When I was a Director at Facebook I was happy to see how much attention was given to making the incredibly young and brilliant employees aware of this syndrome and how to address it in their own lives.
Google offers support including the “Five Keys to a Successful Team.” Informed by 200 interviews with employees, the first key to success is “psychological safety” (i.e. do team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other).
If you feel you may be unduly stressed in your life by imposter syndrome take a look at the work of Valerie Young in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.
When I read her suggestions, here is what I wish I could have told myself back then when I felt like an imposter.
Recognize I “should” feel fraudulent
I had the right to feel fraudulent. I was one of the first women in my field trying to break this particular glass ceiling. It was natural that I wouldn’t feel totally comfortable on this type of call, so why did I recognize my self doubt as a sign of my failings rather than a normal response to being an outsider? Duh!
Separate “My” Feelings from the Facts
I wish someone could have pointed out my loss of perspective on this whole situation and helped me to separate my intensely conflicted and negative feelings from fact. I felt stupid for not knowing the right thing to say - did it mean I was stupid? No!
Break “My” Silence
I felt isolated and kept my shame about feeling inadequate on these calls hidden. I should have broken my silence and shared my feelings with supporters.
I had loved my career with this company for 5 years, but when I tried to climb the next step of the corporate ladder I realized the skills that had made me so successful this far were not going to cut it at this altitude. Around this time the HR team suggested that I start working one on one with a coach. Someone who could give me the support and skills to evoke personal growth as a leader.
Right the Rules
As a new senior leader I believed I should always know the answer and that I should never ask for help. Why? Because I did not want to look weak in the eyes of others.
Who invented these rules?
In coaches training you learn that the “rules” are saboteurs we carry around to keep us from danger. We all have them. One of the most impactful is “The Judge”.
My Judge saboteur wanted to prevent me from appearing weak, so rather than reach out for help, I sucked up the stress of being an imposter which made me unhappy, withdrawn, isolated and ultimately left the company 6 months later.
My departure was prompted by the transformation inside me as I worked through these changes with my coach Ed Gardner. With his support I found self appreciation and self authority to see beyond my current situation and begin to envision a brighter future more attuned to who I was becoming. I left the company realigned to a new purpose and values and began a new venture discovering the world of Chinese Medicine.
In his book Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine writes that the key to mental fitness is to weaken the internal saboteurs who generate the negativity that impedes us from effectively responding to challenges.
Working with one’s saboteurs is central to coaching. Peeling back layers of rules, processes, practices and beliefs that no longer serve people is fascinating, inspiring and rewarding work to witness and experience. It is a precursor to evoking transformation in your life.
Develop a new Script
Working with my coach gave me tools to acknowledge and loosen the grip my Judge saboteur held over my life. Without this shift, I would not have been able to write a new “script”.
Valier writes, “Your script is that automatic mental tape that starts playing in situations that trigger your Impostor feelings. When you start a new job or project instead of thinking for example, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.”
Lastly, what I would do today that I didn’t back then is reach out and get to know the execs on the call on a more personal level. I would have sought to understand the other people on the call first before I sought to be understood.
The prospect of investing the time into building a rapport with these senior leaders was too daunting and I lacked the support to break out and take this next ceiling breaking step. But Katie Dill, VP of Design at Lyft summed up the urgency to build rapport best in a recent McKinsey report when she said, "You can't sit around waiting for that invitation, you need to reach across the table."
I’ve learned from my mistakes and now propose to instill you with the skills that I wish I had when I was in your position. Schedule a call to learn how to navigate performance challenges, SHIFT your mentality, and become a better leader within your respected field.