Imposter Syndrome in the Boardroom: How Executives Handle Self-Doubt

Imposter syndrome occurs when people don’t believe they deserve respect or rewards for their accomplishments. They live in fear that their accomplishments have been a fluke and they will be found out and exposed as a fraud.

In short, they don’t feel they are being their authentic selves, and they don’t believe they’re worthy of being the person others see them as. Imposter syndrome can become a terrible burden carried by even the most successful of people, and it’s not always easy to overcome.

The way out is not to become more successful but to become more authentic with yourself. Accept who you are, where you’re at and everything you’ve accomplished. There’s a reason you’re the person you’ve become, and it has nothing at all to do with nagging feelings of self-doubt.

Imposter syndrome can get worse the higher you climb

If you feel unsafe due to a politically charged and competitive environment, the constant need to prove yourself can take its toll. You may find yourself exaggerating your accomplishments and hiding your mistakes. If you don’t feel worthy of your own accomplishments, you’ll find yourself working extra hard to convince everyone around you that you are. This is the essence of imposter syndrome.

On top of that, women may be more affected by feelings of self-doubt due to gender inequality in the workplace. Salary negotiations, for example, can be difficult to navigate. As women, it has been engrained that we are typically paid less than our male counterparts, so much so that we will often back off on salary negotiations. Men have a greater tendency to negotiate higher salaries, whereas many women consciously or unconsciously show they will accept less money. These negative feelings can continue when it is time to ask for a raise or promotion.

Dealing with imposter syndrome 

The first step is to acknowledge it. Part of being authentic with yourself is recognizing and accepting what you’re feeling. Why do you feel self-doubt, and are those feelings helping you? Consider what the root cause is and how you can address it. Is it your work environment or something that happened in your life that gave you a set narrative? Do you feel you deserve to stop feeling like an imposter?

Next, you need to determine the risks involved in feeling like you’re always faking it, almost as if it’s an unwritten part of your job description. Are you overcompensating with displays of authority to mask internal feelings that you don’t belong? Are these actions having a positive or negative effect on those around you?

You also need to consider the real risk involved in conquering imposter syndrome versus the perceived risks. Does your company frown on people who admit they don’t know something or can’t do something? Is there a silent code that says generals must always appear confident to their troops? Also, the competition may be cutthroat. You have to determine whether you are willing to pay the price for being authentic.

However, it’s essential to understand the true repercussions of expressing yourself and becoming comfortable with them. If being your authentic self feels dangerous, understand that’s part of what imposter syndrome does. It’s not real. Find appropriate ways to be heard and seen that give you what you need without hurting innocents or blaming others, and you’ll find most of what you were worried about naturally dissolves.

Decide on actions to address the root cause. This can include having difficult conversations at work, diving deep into a past trauma through therapy or finding a coach who can help validate you. Perhaps you can get support from like-minded leaders who are outside of your organization. It could also be as simple as being honest when you need to learn something before making a decision.

Once you decide to eliminate imposter syndrome, don’t back down, or you risk feeling like even more of an imposter as you retreat from who you are for the sake of how you appear. If you feel your commitment is shaky, take small steps. Your confidence will grow with initial successes. Finding peers and support from other people in your role or one similar through outside groups and organizations can also give you that sense of belonging and help you value who you truly are.

What authenticity looks like

To pursue authenticity, you need a vision of how it will look. Here are some suggestions:

  • Imagine how it would feel to be unabashedly yet invitingly authentic.
  • Can you see yourself speaking your mind even when you know it might cause controversy  but with good intentions, seeking growth, not harm?
  • Visualize seeking truth and transparency while being inclusive and empathetic, but also buck convention to make positive change happen.
  • Can you picture a balance between being humble, collaborating with your peers and showing a willingness to learn from opposing perspectives while trusting your gut?

Earlier in my career, I would hold my ideas back and not speak up. I felt like my thoughts were obvious to the group or could potentially put too much pressure on me to deliver against the norm. This was causing me stress, but I was blaming it on the environment. However, as I dug deeper and gave myself permission to share my ideas, make mistakes and even fail without fear, I found passion and enjoyment in my work. This, in turn, began boosting my confidence.

As I felt myself becoming more authentic both outwardly toward how I treated others and inwardly toward accepting myself, new possibilities began to emerge I’d never considered before. I had to realize how resilient I was before I felt comfortable taking small steps to test the outcome. What I found over time was that most people appreciated the fresh perspective and curiosity I brought.

I think you may find the same thing.

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