Optimists like to talk about clouds having silver linings. But for pessimists, dark clouds are usually followed by bigger, darker clouds they haven't seen yet. As the UK tumbles headlong towards a new winter of discontent - spiralling inflation, rising interest rates, union unrest - might there be a silver lining? One possibility is that it helps us collectively move on from Covid. While for some scars will remain, the further we get from lockdowns and ventilator shortages the better.
One of the less discussed long-term side effects of the pandemic was an epidemic of mental health problems. Isolation and loneliness led to increased rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. One of the most common of work-based mental anxieties also increased – that sense that you don’t belong where you are, and are about to get caught out. This so-called imposter syndrome, more recently referred to as imposter phenomenon (IP), boomed as we all Zoomed.
Helm, the UK's leading peer-to-peer network for business founders is all about getting members together, virtually and in-person, to help one another overcome such challenges. Earlier in the year Richard Coombes, a Helm member, Forum chair, leading executive coach and founder of Edgesmiths, ran a session about IP, how to spot it and how to overcome it.
What is Imposter Phenomenon?
IP is not a single issue that’s easy to pinpoint, eradicate or medicate. It usually grows gradually, as feelings of inadequacy build alongside a fear of being somehow “less than”. You feel less than others in your position, less than your boss wants you to be, less than you need to be to succeed. Certainly, you feel less than you need to be to justify holding on to your current role, let alone progressing further. Sometimes this can manifest as a general sense of unease, or an expectation that someone is about to “find you out” and ask you to leave.
It can also manifest in physical symptoms, including sweating and nausea, as that sneaking suspicion you will be exposed as a fake threatens to overwhelm you. What often makes it hard for those who lead teams and businesses is that it can also present along with other challenging behaviours, including aggression, isolation, poor communication and coldness.
“Imposter Phenomenon is based on the lie that to succeed you have to be hard on yourself,” explains Coombes. “There may be a sense that, as a successful founder, this can’t or shouldn’t be happening to you. But it is something that affects the most successful and wealthy people."
Where does Imposter Phenomenon come from?
Coombes explains that it most likely has its origins in early life, and most notably in traumatic experiences. It is about the inner child, but keeps being reinforced by experiences throughout life and the natural feedback loop of telling yourself where you are going wrong and why you don’t deserve to be where you are.
“It is quite common for people to focus too much on their failures, and to think about the reactions of others to their failures,” says Coombes. “People with IP tend not to absorb their successes very easily. This focus on failure and failure to absorb success leads to them building an inaccurate picture of who they are, why they have achieved what they have and why they are where they are.”
Why is it important to understand Imposter Phenomenon?
Coombes is clear that as leaders of teams and businesses, we need to make all the effort we can to understand IP. “It matters because it is a major cause of discomfort among team members. But this is also an important source of data about the team and their circumstance”
Above all, of course, we need to identify and call out IP because it damages performance and wastes the team’s energy and focus. The productivity of the business will be boosted if you can identify and resolve this kind of negative thinking either in yourself or your team. “There is just so much energy used up by the fear and doubt that IP brings with it,” says Coombes.
The good news is that this energy can be harnessed and managed for more positive outcomes.
How can you manage Imposter Phenomenon?
The key to managing and turning IP into an asset for the team and the business is to turn things on their head and to see this as data and as a signal (rather than noise that blocks a signal). In any stressful work situation, whether it’s a huge pitch presentation or a regular weekly team meeting, there are two types of preparation to focus on. Coombes suggests people separate the technical from the psychological.
Focus first on the technical preparation. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to prepare all the technical details, read and digest whatever needs to be read. Be on top of the detail. This is the best preparation because when you know you know the details, it helps build confidence. But don’t neglect the second part of the preparation – you need to do something to build up confidence and focus on your abilities and successes. Think about previous similar situations that went well and build on those.
If you start to feel the doubts creep back, then stop and think about what is happening. “Taking the time to clock it, name it and think of an intervention is the best way to reduce your recovery time and allow you to move forward more quickly,” says Coombes.
He suggests formulating some mechanisms you can draw on in the heat of the moment when doubts are at their strongest. In the moment mechanisms include centring yourself, reminding yourself of your strengths and name IP for what it is.
But if these feelings keep presenting, there may be a need to devote time and energy to some deeper restorative work, using techniques such as therapy or coaching. This is the best way to get the support you need to take a step back and think where this came from and to get advice and support on how to adjust or reframe to a more positive mindset.
Helpful resources for dealing with Imposter Phenomenon
If you, or a member of your team, have been affected by IP, Coombes offers the following recommendations:
1. Visit the Positive Intelligence website and download the app
2. Get a coach. It can really help to get support from an external perspective.
3. Read Beyond Imposter Syndrome by Margaret Collins and The Imposter Phenomenon: Overcoming The Fear That Haunts Your Success by Dr Pauline Rose Clance
4. Use Topgrading.com – Advanced recruitment practices for growing businesses.
5. Attend Helm events (only available to members)