Tackling 'imposter syndrome': working with third sector leaders

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As part of its commitment to supporting the third sector, The King’s Fund works in partnership with GSK to run the GSK IMPACT Awards, which provide leadership development and funding for award winners. In this blog, David Naylor, a senior leadership consultant at The King’s Fund, reflects on ‘imposter syndrome’, considering its impact on third sector leaders and beyond. 

The King’s Fund hosts a vibrant network of senior leaders working in the third sector, who represent almost 90 award-winning charities working in health and care from across the UK. Its members are all experienced, imaginative and highly capable people. So, when we received multiple requests from them to run a workshop on ‘imposter syndrome’, it was a bit of a surprise on two counts. First, these individuals were all seasoned leaders; second, people did not usually talk about this sense of being an imposter.

‘Imposter syndrome’ spans sectors and roles, from global chief executives, through NHS managers and third sector leaders, to senior consultants in The King’s Fund. The term describes a high-achieving individual who struggles to internalise success; who feels fraudulent; and who attributes success to factors such as hard work, charm or luck. Those with ‘imposter syndrome’ experience a chronic sense of inadequacy. It is an experience shared by women and men.

To introduce the workshop with GSK IMPACT Award winners, we considered the following questions, based on the work of Dr Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome.

  • Do you worry others will find out you are not as clever as they think you are?
  • Do you avoid challenges because of self-doubt?
  • Do you believe your accomplishments are because of chance?
  • Do you hate making mistakes and being underprepared?
  • Are you crushed by constructive criticism?
  • Is success followed by a sense that you have fooled people this time but that you may not be so lucky next time?
  • Do you assume others are smarter and more capable than you?
  • Do you live in fear of being ‘found out’?

As a group, we pretty much agreed we all had some of the traits of included in imposter syndrome. This led to a conversation about ‘so what?’. Everyone in the room was successful most of the time. The tactics we deployed to manage imposter syndrome – being able to work hard; pay attention to detail; strive to get it right; and push for better – are valued leadership traits. And, we concluded, such traits can silence our ability to be confident about asking the right questions. Leadership is about getting things done and remaining curious about who or what may be being ignored as we make sure we do a good job.

But, look again at questions 2 and 7. I can think of the times I have sat in silence as half-baked ideas are adopted or uncivil behaviour is used to force others’ compliance. Times when I have assumed I am wrong; when I defer to another’s expertise without testing it; when I am silenced by my desire not to be seen to get it wrong. Imposter syndrome is an intense personal experience. It is also a part of a wider social process that can contribute to making people less safe. We know that when we sit around the table, staying quiet; not testing assumptions; not questioning who and what is ignored we can end up making poor decisions. A situation exacerbated when incivility and coercive use of power are part of the leadership culture. So, what can we do to resist our imposter feelings?

The literature suggests the following.

  • Talk about it – others may also be struggling with similar feelings.
  • Understand – the syndrome is well researched. Knowledge can help disrupt a negative script.
  • Know what triggers negative feelings. Big groups do it for me. Now I know this, I can have a different conversation with myself when I am revising my well-researched lecture at 3am on the day.
  • Record achievements to disrupt the script of ‘I know nothing’.
  • Think ‘good enough’ – perfection is impossible, particularly when an issue is complex.
  • Be curious about feeling particularly stupid or incompetent – while this is felt personally, it may also be a clue about something difficult emerging in a conversation; something no one feels confident about managing. Bracketing this off as just another example of how incompetent one is, is to miss the opportunity to talk about what may really be going on.
  • Self-doubt is a core skill – to learn one must be prepared to radically question what one assumes to be true. Dismissing this doubt as ‘just imposter syndrome’ can mean missing moments of productive reflection.
  • Pay attention to hours worked – while it may be routine in some work cultures to work long hours this can be a reason not to have conversations about why we work so hard and why we collectively agree to this.

The sense of being an imposter is real and can be personally debilitating, but it is more than a personal experience. If, in a group, 50 per cent of people are privately struggling with their sense of being imposters, it will have a profound impact on the way the group works; what it notices and what and whom it ignores. Speaking up despite feeling like an imposter is an important skill for all of us, if we are to remain thoughtful, curious and help others to keep learning.

2020 GSK IMPACT Awards

The GSK IMPACT Awards provide funding, training and development for charities doing excellent work to improve people's health and wellbeing. The deadline for applications is Monday 23 September 2019 at 5pm. 

Apply now

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