Ways to end impostor syndrome in leadership positions

I have had the good fortune to coach and advise many corporate presidents and C-level leaders during my career. These highly successful executives are the best and brightest in their industries - and yet many feel like they don't deserve to be in their respective positions.

Time and time again, I find that these leaders experience impostor syndrome - that feeling that you somehow lucked into your job position and that someday you will be found out as lacking the skills needed to perform.

In fact, research suggests that almost no one is immune to this phenomenon. A study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that 70% of workers are likely to experience impostor syndrome at some point in their lives.

It is also not an issue specific to women. While originally associated with women when it was first coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s, a variety of research on the topic has revealed that men feel this way too. In my practice I find that women executives are more comfortable talking about impostor syndrome, and thus are also more apt to seek help addressing it. Men demonstrate the same behaviors but are less apt to name these behaviors as impostor syndrome.

Workers who experience impostor syndrome may show these symptoms:

• Crediting success to luck or other reasons;

• Fear of being "found out" as unfit for role;

• Feeling that a big mistake is imminent;

• Procrastinating on big work assignments;

• Feeling that overworking is the only way to meet expectations;

• Overemphasis on perfection;

• Holding back from pursuing promotions.

Impostor syndrome can negatively impact employees individually and a company's culture.

On a personal level, impostor syndrome can lead to lower job performance, less job satisfaction and increased burnout, a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found. It is also linked to anxiety and depression.

On a cultural level, decision-making may slow, innovation may be viewed as too risky, and meetings can suffer from group think. The culture becomes one where the team is not playing to win, but simply not to lose, emphasizing safety and security rather than decisiveness and bold actions.

This simply isn't an issue executives and managers can ignore. If you suspect a high-performing employee of experiencing impostor syndrome, there are a few steps to take to help them recover.

• Let employees know they're not alone.

It is important for individuals to know that they are not unique in their feelings. Most people at one time or another have had these feelings. Managers can talk about their own experience either dealing with impostor syndrome or similar situations.

• Reinforce "progress, not perfection."

Many of these workers feel like one mistake will reveal them as frauds. Ensure they know that everyone makes mistakes, and detail what can be learned from these mistakes. Talk to them about the progress they have made, what they have done well and the obstacles they have overcome to get where they are today.

• Provide positive feedback and praise.

Acknowledge employee accomplishments, abilities and acumen regularly. Be specific, clear and - if you can - unbiased. Don't gush; instead present the employee with reliable facts about their performance and the impact it makes on the company.

• Talk about mental health.

Employees are looking for managers that acknowledge the role mental health plays in the workplace. They want to talk about their well-being openly and work for people who do the same. They are looking for support, empathy and real action behind employee wellness.

• Paul Eccher, Ph.D., is president and CEO of The Vaya Group in Warrenville.

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