What is imposter syndrome?
There have been numerous academic papers and books written on the subject of ‘imposter syndrome’, but at a basic level it can be summarised as a feeling that you are a fraud and that your achievements have come about as a result of luck rather than ability.
Bright and talented people secretly worry that they’re not as bright, talented or qualified as everyone thinks they are, despite obvious success.
Academics such as Dr Valerie Young believe that there are five different types of imposters: the perfectionist, the superwoman/man, the natural genius, the soloist, and the expert. Other recent research has shown that seven in 10 knowledge workers have suffered either burnout or imposter syndrome, with 42% suffering both.
Does it only affect those lacking confidence?
There are many words that colleagues, clients and opponents have used to describe me over the years – the relevant (and printable) ones for the purposes of this article are: ‘confident’, ‘pragmatic’, and ‘knowledgeable’.
Yet, despite 34 years of practice and having founded and led my own firm for 15 years, until recently I had always assumed that they were talking about someone else. When Chambers and Legal 500 ranked me as ‘Band 1’ and ‘Leading Individual’ – I thought, ‘really?’.
But a few years ago, sitting outside the High Court waiting for our injunction order to be signed by the judge, I was chatting to our barrister Sam, a good friend and one of the most talented legal brains on the planet.
‘I wonder at what stage in our careers we will realise that people are right, we are actually quite good at this.’
We have both been in practice for the same amount of time and he is well respected and much in demand. So, imagine my surprise when he leant over and asked quietly ‘I wonder at what stage in our careers we will realise that people are right, we are actually quite good at this’.
That one sentence was a revelation, one of those defining moments in a career when you realise that you are not alone, that there are others who are much cleverer and much more confident than you, who feel the same way.
One of the myriad effects of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown has been a real dip in peoples’ professional confidence. With the true number of people suffering from imposter syndrome already widely considered to be much higher than reported, due to people often suffering in silence, the added impact of the lockdown means there has never been a more important time to talk about it openly.
The drawbacks of working from home
Of course, working from home has many benefits: we have peace and quiet, we don’t have to dress up, we can take the dog out when we want, we can all operate independently in our own little bubble.
But what we lose out on in working from home are those little interactions – from your supervising partner holding her head in her hands because she is on the fifth draft of a document and it is still not right, to someone asking a question that you actually know the answer to.
Is working from home enhancing feelings of imposter syndrome?
Another subtle and often overlooked advantage of office work is the opportunity to ask more questions because it is more natural, rather than having to send an email or wait for a webchat response.
Without this, it is too easy to sit in isolation and think ‘this is taking too long’ or ‘it did not take long enough, I must have missed something’. Rather than giving a letter to a colleague to read, you read it over and over. Because people are not around to say well done, when things occasionally don’t go right for you, you start to question if you are even following the right career path.
How to spot those who are suffering from imposter syndrome
In professions such as the law, where time spent is recorded, then the first signs are those who seem to be working very hard (look at the times of emails) but their figures at the end of the month do not reflect this. This indicates double checking, lack of confidence and self-doubt.
For those who are managers such as HR, they are regarded by their team as micromanagers and find it very difficult to delegate – and even if they do delegate they are often frustrated with the results.
Depending on the type of imposter syndrome, there are also those who feel they have not earned their title or those who have always been so good at everything they do that they worry about taking on something new for fear of failure.
It is also important to remember that imposter syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, culture or seniority.
How to minimise the effects of imposter syndrome
Whilst zoom was a life saver during the pandemic, nothing replaces regular face-to-face meetings and the chance to have an informal chat over coffee about how things are really going.
It is important, as managers, to share your own feelings and experiences of not getting it right, so that your team knows that they aren’t alone.
The person who asks questions and says ‘I knew that I was just checking’ is really not helpful.
A culture of completely honest discussion is key, because if everyone else is giving the impression of finding things easy, not only will that not be true, but it will cause those who doubt their abilities to tumble further. The person who asks questions and says ‘I knew that I was just checking’ is really not helpful.
Boosting confidence is also key, remembering to really celebrate the successes, no matter how small. But do not just assume that giving a team member with imposter syndrome a promotion or pay rise will boost confidence.
Instead, you may end up putting more pressure on them because they do not feel worthy and find themselves under more pressure trying to justify the salary increase.
Can you overcome it?
With the right encouragement and support then the answer is a very clear yes. I am living proof of that, but it is important to look out for the tell-tale signs of even those who appear outwardly confident.
Now when the directories are published and kind things are written about me I think, ‘that six month injunction was really hard work but I learned so much’, rather than thinking, ‘they must have mixed me up with someone else’.