We share some insights into imposter syndrome and how candidates can work to overcome this potential career obstacle.
You may already be familiar with the term ‘imposter syndrome’. It is often characterised by persistent feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy or a perception that you’re ‘faking it’, don’t belong and will never be as good as others. This common psychological experience can affect anyone – even the great physicist, Albert Einstein, is reported to have suffered from it, saying he felt like an “involuntary swindler”.
It was first coined as imposter phenomenon back in 1978, by clinicians at Georgia State University, in the US, to describe experiences of high-achieving women. Today, high performing professionals, women, minority groups and first-generation university students are said to be among those disproportionately affected by this negative internal monologue.
Those who suffer find it hard to recognise their own talents or capabilities, even with external evidence or approval, often believing career successes are down to luck. People will often feel they are not qualified, capable or good enough to be in their current role or one they’re aspiring to be in.
The self-sabotaging inner voice
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) warns that people may use their fears around perceived fraudulence as an excuse to evade new opportunities or may hesitate to ask for help, leading to stagnation in career growth. Executive Life Coach, Raghav Parkash, whose clients include high performing leaders, warns that left unaddressed, imposter syndrome can really hinder someone’s career and interview success. The effects, he says, include:
- Believing you are not good enough or qualified enough will lead you to naturally feel more inauthentic and underconfident during an interview.
- You are constantly comparing yourself to other people and putting them above you.
- You might be holding back on applying for the roles you are absolutely qualified to do – you might even set your sights lower.
- You then self-sabotage in the interviews you put yourself forward in.
Caroline Holt, Founder of Attitude Coach, which helps professional women fulfil their potential, agrees: “If you are in that place of questioning yourself, doubting yourself, believing that you don’t deserve the success that you've had, then it's going to really hamper you. You won’t be putting your best self forward and are unlikely to have the greatest chance of getting that next role.”
How it can hinder your job search
Across seven common signs of imposter syndrome examined in a YouGov survey, more than 90% of Britons surveyed identified with at least one trait, with 65% displaying at least three traits, and one in three (29%) identifying with one or two signs. The most commonly experienced include difficulty in accepting compliments and praise, high personal expectations, criticising yourself more than others criticise you and downplaying your achievements. The survey found that women are significantly more likely to have trouble accepting compliments and praise (72% versus 59% of men).
A LinkedIn Gender Insights Report found that while men and women view a similar number of jobs, women are 16% less likely than men to apply, while a study by the Behavioural Insights Team notes that gender disparities can be explained by less qualified men’s “greater self-perceptions”. Indeed, 74% of executive level female leaders surveyed by KPMG believe their male peers don’t suffer as much with feelings of self-doubt, with three quarters of these respondents experiencing imposter syndrome.
Holt sees this dynamic play out in the companies she works with: “They have these senior positions or opportunities, with men who aren’t ready but are champing at the bit to have those roles. While the women, who are already more than qualified, are not putting themselves forward. I see it time and time again and because men put themselves forward much more, they will often get the roles, then learn on the job and get the necessary experience.”
Recognise the signs, then conquer
Part of the problem in overcoming an inner imposter voice is that many individuals don’t realise they are suffering from it. “To change anything, you first need to be aware of the signs,” notes executive business coach Catrin MacDonnell: “Catching this imposter narrative or internal script is vital. Then, as you notice it, ask yourself what would be more useful as a script. For example, change the script from “I am not good enough” to “I am doing my best and that is good”. Work on developing an inner voice that talks to you like a really supportive friend, who wants the best for you.”
She adds: “Remember that we all make mistakes and that they are an opportunity to learn and improve. Talk to others about these thoughts, as you’ll soon realise you’re not alone – that most people share the same challenges and you can start discussing how you can both start thinking differently and support each other. See these thoughts as part of the journey and approach it all with compassionate curiosity. Think “How interesting/exciting, let’s see what happens next!””
Parkash urges candidates to consider these top tips:
- Ask yourself what skills and achievements you’ve demonstrated in the past that could be relevant moving forward.
- It’s okay to not feel okay. When you notice that imposter voice pop up, be kind to yourself, breathe, give yourself some headspace – whether it’s going for a walk or doing something for yourself that makes you feel good.
- Reframe imposter thoughts as moments of growth. Imposter syndrome is often a sign you’re encroaching on the edge of your comfort zone but reframing these feelings can help.
- Acknowledge that asking for help is a strength. Find a friend or former colleague who can help you with your interview prep and provide you with feedback.
- Give your imposter thoughts a name to make them more easily recognisable: Tom, Sarah etc. When imposter thoughts crop up and you have named them, it deflates the seriousness with some comedy: “Oh look, it’s Tom again, how long will he hang around this time?”
- Make a plan of the roles you want to apply for and commit to 1-3 actions each day that will move you forward.
For Holt, a key part of addressing attitudinal barriers that can hinder job searches or a promotion is about enabling individuals to value themselves: “I get people to look at the efforts they’ve made, rather than the successes they’ve had (the growth mindset).”
Candidates who learn to “esteem themselves”, as Holt says, and take time to focus on some steps to handling imposter syndrome will become more resilient and less likely to limit themselves in job searches –opening up a clearer, happier pathway to roles they’re more than capable of doing.
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