Person lying down with book on face. Is this how we imagine rest?

You’ve probably come across the concept of “imposter syndrome” – the gnawing feeling that your accomplishments and responsibilities have been achieved through luck alone, and that at any moment your true incompetence will be revealed to everyone around you.

For many people, discovering “Imposter Syndrome” gave a name to an instantly familiar sensation. For women and minorities, the sense of “not belonging” has often been especially acute. In our work with women leaders we often find a sense of relief and recognition arise when we start to talk about the secret dread of being “found out”.

And yet, increasingly we’re also noticing conversations about the limits of imposter syndrome. In the words of Lauren Currie:

“We’re tired of people talking about women having impostor syndrome rather than talking about biases in hiring, promotion, leadership, and compensation. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

Is it time we retired “Imposter Syndrome”?

The limits of imposter syndrome

As we explore the topic of Imposter Syndrome a little more, we start to uncover complexities that aren’t initially obvious.

With a focus on individual experience, often countered by suggestions for personal resilience, it can pull attention from the wider, systemic reasons behind these feelings of “not belonging”.

If a woman of colour, or a neurodiverse employee, feels that they’re going to be “found out” for not being the person others think they are, is that really an issue they need to look within the fix, or a sign that the system they’re in is failing to function inclusively?

“Imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.” Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, HBR

Using labels like “Imposter Syndrome” is an ongoing subject of inquiry for warriors. How do we balance the benefits of naming something many people experience, with the drawbacks of assuming each one of those experiences is similar?

Cultures without masks

Our organisational cultures send signals about the kinds of people who belong within them. For example: the expectation of attending social events after-hours; traditions involving drinking alcohol; ice-breaker questions about foreign travel; calls which begin with emotional sharing as a way to connect.

Consider:

Who in your team might feel they are an “Imposter”?

How could your organisation create a sense of belonging?

Where are individuals inadvertently excluded or “othered”?

Answering Imposter with Authenticity

The idea of being an “imposter” relies on the concept of an “ideal” employee – a role which the imperfect, complex, diverse humans within our teams intuitively sense they are unable to fully inhabit.

One way to address it, then, is to actively initiate a culture where all parts of its participants are welcomed and celebrated. A culture where vulnerability and no-knowing is modelled by everyone at every level of the organisation. Where failures are talked about, differences acknowledged, and individual experiences listened to.

When we know how to talk about our doubts, our mistakes, our fears and our doubts without seeing them as detracting from our immense capability and creativity, we begin to demonstrate a truly inclusive organisation.

Want some extra support?

If you’ve identified imposter syndrome as concern within your organisation, is it time to take a fresh look? Our development programmes support leaders in creating inclusive and safe cultures. Just get in touch and let us know what you need.

Share This