Is It Really Imposter Syndrome?


Over my many years as an executive coach, I’ve been surprised at the increase in number of clients who state they suffer from “imposter syndrome”, particularly among women and women of color.

Imposter syndrome is generally recognized as the experience of doubting your abilities and feeling like an “imposter” whose career and reputation will sooner or later come to a halt for being found out as fraudulent. (An imposter is defined as a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others.)

Interestingly, high achievers with high standards for themselves tend to be the most affected by “imposter syndrome.” These individuals are known to have a difficult time embracing their accomplishments and accepting deserved recognition and praise. They are uncomfortable with too much visibility. And yet, they seek leadership and influence based on their ability to get things done well and efficiently. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who developed the concept of imposter syndrome, found that driven women with a desire to accomplish high impact in their careers were particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. This leads to the obvious question of, why?

But what if we are misusing the term “imposter syndrome”? What if inappropriate use of the label has created a problem in and of itself? Often it has become a self- diagnosis that leaders, particularly minority leaders, impose on themselves.

As an example, recently I worked with a black female executive who had been promoted to a new position in a rapidly growing tech company. She is highly experienced, extremely smart and could handle complicated operational logistics, but when it came to the office politics, she was thoroughly confused. When she first joined the leadership team she was vocal in her opinions, bringing her many years of expertise to the conversations. It did not take her long to notice she had to find an opening to insert her opinion because no one ever asked it of her. She was undermined, decisions were made behind her back. She began to wonder if race and gender had something to do with how she was being treated. She was the only black woman on the team. She began doubting whether she was qualified to do her job, wondering if she could really succeed in the role. This despite excellent client relationships and great success in her private separate entrepreneurial ventures. Nonetheless, she became plagued with anxiety, was hard on herself, feeling that her success had been a fluke and she was going to be exposed as a fraud.

What began as a healthy and normal level of anxiety in a new role– will my colleagues respect me, will I fit in, will my race be an issue, will I be able to do my best work?– became a deep dread of her workplace and a feeling that her job was causing her to have symptoms of trauma. Soon she decided to label her struggle as “imposter syndrome.”

We explored what that label meant to her and some of the context behind it. Her leadership assessment indicated a leadership style that was highly personable, direct, assertive and astute to social dynamics. And yet, at work she found herself becoming increasingly reserved, cautious and unsure of herself. What could account for this painful discrepancy?

Women and people of color have a relatively shorter history in corporate leadership than Caucasian males. This can easily result in self-doubt and the feeling that “I don’t belong”, at its worst feeling you are not wanted and the system is consciously and unconsciously working against you. We spent a fair amount of time talking about overt and covert experiences of systemic racism and gender bias, and how these came to impact her leadership.

Now, when a client talks to me about imposter syndrome, I find it important to explore the culture dynamics of their work as well as to normalize feelings of insecurity and doubt. Personal and leadership growth involves taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zone. We all know how uncomfortable that can feel. But those feelings do not need to be labeled as a syndrome. They are normal. More helpful than imposing the label of imposter syndrome would be helping the individual reframe their feelings, normalizing and accepting them so that they can more easily escape their grip.

And as to the culture of work, I have yet to work with a woman of color who does not describe what they wish to overcome as imposter syndrome. I feel genuinely sad and disappointed in how common it is for women to have been silenced when offering an opinion, or have been left out of critical decision-making, when their roles and experience would make for logical inclusion. “Breaking-in” to the historically dominant culture is a tall order. We now know a lot more about implicit and unconscious bias than we did a decade ago. Minorities in the workplace, women included, are trying to hold themselves to standards that they did not create, and often don’t reflect their values or ways of operating, but that nonetheless are the norm for success within the general culture of organizations.

In all my years as an executive coach I have very rarely had a male state he had received feedback that they needed to improve his “executive presence”. Men are typically given specific behavioral feedback. Women, conversely, are often told to improve their “executive presence”, without more specifics. To these women, this direction often means to help her to somehow act and look in a way that would be more acceptable to the organization in order to be taken more seriously.

In my experience, leaders that are having a hard time conforming to the dominant organizational culture, who have experienced being excluded or silenced, are those leaders identifying with the self-imposed label “imposter syndrome.”

So, if you find yourself feeling doubtful about your capabilities, despite a performance track-record that indicates otherwise, if you find yourself wondering “am I in over my head” when your skills are not being fully leveraged commensurate with your experience, I recommend:

  1. Acknowledge that feelings of insecurity and self-doubt are simply part of being human. Do not label these feelings as pathological or uniquely troublesome. They are not imposter syndrome. They are a natural element in taking risks and growing.

  2. It is the sad fact of operating cultures that conscious and unconscious biases are real. Therefore, spend less time second-guessing yourself and more time building your confidence and expertise. Build your personal network of support and advocacy for when the going gets tough and you find yourself demoralized. It is a process, a long one, but the organization needs your perspective desperately. Do not give up. You are not an impostor.

  3. Just because vocal and visible colleagues dominate the culture, does not mean that they are the smartest and most competent; more often, quite the opposite. Leadership privilege is the opposite syndrome in that it is assumed. It allows some leaders to take their importance and influence for granted, freely excluding voices that may challenge or threaten their position. Do not let your lack of conforming to the dominant style result in your believing you suffer from imposter syndrome. Instead, use coaching to help you develop situational awareness in the context of the cultural dynamics, and help you develop the tools for positive team communication and impact.

  4. Network, organize and empower others to see beyond the label of imposter syndrome. Wherever that term appears, there is an important opportunity to take a closer look at systemic bias and ensure the organization is truly working to create a diverse, growth-oriented team culture.

Elevate your Leadership Potential

To learn more about overcoming imposter syndrome and executive coaching, reach out to Nora for a consultation.