Experiencing imposter syndrome in the C-suite? You're not alone.

AboveBoard | Apr 19, 2023

Insights and support to regain your confidence and own your story.

Imposter syndrome can creep up when we least expect it. And no one is immune. 

Also referred to as imposter phenomenon or experience, imposter syndrome is defined as "the situation in which highly accomplished, successful individuals paradoxically believe they are frauds who ultimately will fail and be unmasked as incompetent." It's important to note that imposter syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, according to the American Psychological Association. But that doesn't make it any less real.  

Wondering how to identify imposter syndrome, particularly as someone in leadership or on a C-suite track? In this article, we'll outline common signs of imposter syndrome and offer strategies for combating imposter syndrome along the way.

How do I know if I have imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome manifests itself in different ways. For some people, signs of imposter syndrome include overpreparation, overachievement, and, at its height, burnout. For others, imposter syndrome could largely be an internal feeling of self-doubt accompanied by feelings of lower self-esteem or self-confidence.

Potential signs of imposter syndrome include:

  • Feelings of self-doubt or fear related to accomplishments.
  • Feeling afraid or unable to advocate for oneself.
  • Attributing your success solely to a diversity initiative or program.  
  • Struggling with delegation. 
  • Overpreparation and/or procrastination.
  • Burnout.

If any of these experiences ring true to you, do not be discouraged. You are not alone. As many as 82% of people report feeling imposter syndrome too. What's more, this phenomenon is "especially prominent among people with underrepresented identities," according to the APA.

Strategies to combat imposter syndrome 

Keep a success log 

"Part of what happens with individuals who experience impostorism is that they tend to discount the really positive things that they have achieved, all of their accomplishments," said Kevin Cokley, Phd, a psychologist who has studied imposter syndrome for a decade now. Cokley recommends "ask[ing] people to really make a concerted effort to attend to and to document all of those things that they actually have done well."

One way of combating imposter syndrome includes keeping a log of your accomplishments and successes, no matter how big or small. This could look like creating a folder in your inbox for encouraging emails and notes you've received from colleagues and superiors. You could compile screenshots of projects and work data you're proud of. If writing is a medium you prefer, keep a journal documenting the day or week's wins. Use whatever tools are available to you to create a tangible log of the work you've done. It'll be helpful to have a record to look back on if and when imposter syndrome creeps up.

Don't go it alone 

Community is one of the most impactful ways to combat imposter syndrome. Keeping feelings of imposter syndrome to ourselves can often exacerbate the experience rather than alleviating it. In fact, seeking out community and the perspective of others can be a great practice to shift your perspective and help you regain your confidence. This can take different forms, from sharing your experiences with someone you trust to participating in individual or group therapy.

Practice self-care

Stopping imposter syndrome in its tracks takes self-awareness. If you're struggling with perfectionism, having feelings of self-doubt, or on the brink of burnout, it can be difficult to take a step back and see the signs of imposter syndrome for what they are. That's where self-care comes in. 

"Oftentimes, when we have impostor syndrome, we put ourselves at the bottom of the list of who we care about, or who we take care of, who we spend time on," says Lisa Orbé-Austin, PhD, a counseling psychologist and career coach. By prioritizing self-care, you'll be better able to practice mindfulness, give yourself grace, and recognize your imposter syndrome tendencies.

Leading with imposter syndrome

Are you seeing potential signs of imposter syndrome as a team leader? Or are you a leader in the C-suite or boardroom experiencing imposter syndrome? First, you are not alone. Thoughts of imposter syndrome can crop up regardless of our experience or post. Remember, that's in part why it is largely experienced by highly accomplished and successful individuals.

For leaders desiring to cultivate a culture that banishes imposter syndrome, MIT Sloan Management Review recommends creating an inclusive work environment that prioritizes psychological safety. "We can’t tell people who experience imposter syndrome to value their complicated humanity if our work culture doesn’t," according to the review. (Eager to learn about creating an inclusive work environment? Read more here.)

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