Fakes, Phonies, Charlatans & Frauds! Getting to Grips with Impostor Syndrome

On Thursday 14th February over 60 professionals from the Investment Management industry gathered at Capital’s office to get to grips with Impostor Syndrome, with a session led by Amy Dempsey, and co-hosted by Capital Group and IMPACT.

Not everyone in attendance was familiar with Impostor Syndrome which is defined as “the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success”.

The aim of the session was to:

  • Help spot and understand the symptoms in ourselves and others
  • Reflect on individual patterns and triggers
  • Consider what can be done practically – for ourselves and for our companies – to stop Impostor Syndrome being a barrier to progress

Amy spoke about the challenges facing the industry and the critical importance of thoughtful people having the confidence to contribute fully to tackling them.  With an estimated 70% of ‘high achievers’ thought to suffer from impostor feelings during their career, it is important to encourage greater openness on this topic and to explore strategies to help people manage the more negative impacts.

The group was presented with ten questions aimed at identifying feelings associated with impostor syndrome. Interestingly, the question which resonated most strongly with the group was “Do you worry that it’s only a matter of time before you are ‘found out’ or exposed?”.  The private fear that, at any point, one could be detained by the ‘no-talent police’ was revealed as a common concern!

We then moved on to discuss who it affects. A common misconception is that impostor syndrome only affects women; this is not the case.  Research has shown that men and woman alike experience such feelings, albeit the majority of public commentary on the topic to date has been generated by women.  It was gratifying to see a large number of men attending the event, supporting this point.

Ironically, impostor syndrome is most likely to affect high achieving and highly competent people – as opposed to ‘genuine’ impostors!  What’s more, these feelings do not dissipate or become less profound as people become more successful or achieve more.  If anything, an individual’s sense of impostorism is likely to become more pronounced as they become more senior and feel like they have to work even harder to maintain their ‘charade of competence’!

We explored where these feelings come from and what can trigger them.  Your upbringing, your working environment and feeling ‘different’ or lacking a sense of belonging all have a part to play.  Working environments where learning and development is not well supported, perfectionism is the unspoken rule and there is such a thing as a ‘silly question’ will likely fuel underlying impostor feelings.  Being the outlier from a gender, age, race, sexuality, socio-economic or academic perspective will also intensify the issue.  While firms across the industry continue to strive to improve diversity profiles, it’s worth being aware of this as one of the many potential downsides of a lack of diversity in the workplace.

The group discussed common impacts on behaviour from fostering feelings of impostorism.  Over-work and perfectionism, holding back or avoiding taking even calculated risks, people pleasing, self-sabotage and procrastination or failure to finish were among the commonly observed impacts.  Unproductive, self-limiting habits and behaviours which were all agreed to be detrimental to progress.

However, Amy also talked about the potential positives of ‘well managed and channelled’ impostor syndrome.  It’s not all bad news!  Among these are a permanent commitment to improving performance and a disposition which is naturally open to learning and growth.  She also talked about humility and self-reflection as positive qualities in asset management.

The session ended with a lively group discussion around how we can better ‘manage’ personal feelings of impostorism and what leaders can do differently to get the best out of those harbouring these feelings.

Key takeaways for individuals were

  • This is a common way to feel! Lots of people feel this way…even people you might not expect.  (It also has its benefits if we can learn to channel it properly!)
  • Learn to recognise when you are in the grip of an attack of impostor syndrome – attempt to separate these feelings from the reality of your situation. Write it down or talk about it – when thoughts and feelings are taken outside of our own heads, it is often easier to separate the rational from the irrational or unfounded
  • Break the internal deadlock – find a trusted adviser (or advisers) who will tell you the truth. Not somebody who will just be nice to you, but someone who will give you a realistic perspective
  • Seek a wide range of feedback on yourself, regularly
  • Reassure yourself – it’s ok not to know everything…nobody does!
  • Be open and pro-active in requesting any learning or development support you think you need
  • Be intellectually authentic – if you have a view, be brave and share it. Don’t feel you just need to go along with consensus or the ‘senior view’
  • Stop apologising in meetings – you haven’t done anything wrong!
  • Maintain a personal CV to remind yourself of key achievements; try not to over-focus on the things you have got wrong or the negatives but remember the positives
  • Don’t feel you have to lose your humility along the way – in fact, it’s important to retain it!

Key takeaways for leaders and organisations –

  • Be conscious that you may have employees who are struggling with these feelings; encourage open dialogue. If somebody is consistently holding back, not speaking up, or turning down opportunities, try and find out why that might be.
  • Create psychologically safe working environments – encourage questioning, consider how ‘mistakes’ are treated, and be prepared to show some personal vulnerability
  • Be clear that everyone, regardless of experience or seniority, should embrace learning and development and hold open conversations about this – asking for additional support is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, it’s a sign of strength
  • Think carefully about meetings, in particular – is there opportunity for everyone to contribute? Does rotating the chairperson encourage different dynamics?
  • Remember to praise as well as to critique
  • Be mindful of the potential impact of diversity challenges on employees’ sense of confidence or belonging – be open about this
  • Mentoring and ‘reverse mentoring’ could play strong roles in helping address some of these issues
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