We are fortunate in New Zealand to have been spared the massive human cost that Covid-19 has wreaked on much of the world, but the economic cost is, and will continue to be, significant. The support provided by the government to businesses has softened the impact somewhat, but many are still facing hard times and an uncertain future. Hard times mean hard decisions for leaders. Whether it’s mothballing, downsizing, diversifying, reducing spending or other measures, business leaders are taking risks and in many cases, stepping into uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. When feeling under pressure or in an unfamiliar situation, a lot of people experience “Impostor Syndrome.” Many of you reading this may recognise what I am about to describe as it is more common than you think.
What is Impostor Syndrome?Impostor Syndrome is when you doubt your achievements are valid, secretly feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing and have a fear of being exposed as incompetent.
People experiencing Impostor Syndrome think their colleagues and supervisors overestimate them, so they decline opportunities outside of their role and don’t celebrate their successes. In fact, success leads to anxiety because they fear they can’t replicate it, so don’t want to draw attention to it and raise people’s expectations of them. Another symptom of Impostor Syndrome is an intense fear of failure and the often accompanying perfectionism. Sufferers end up handicapping themselves by creating long odds, such as leaving something to the last minute. This means that if they fail, they can blame the situation, not their own lack of ability, while reinforcing their belief that they weren’t good enough to do it well anyway.
Where does it come from?Almost everyone experiences Impostor Syndrome at some point in their lives, because its roots lie in childhood. When we are a child, all the competent, knowledgeable, and effective people (to our young eyes) are adults, and we are not an adult. Therefore, we develop the belief that competent, knowledgeable, effective people are different to us; we are not one of those people. Even when we discover that our parents are not, in fact, perfect and don’t know everything, this belief is deeply ingrained in our psyche and needs to be unlearned. Accomplishment alone is not the antidote to Impostor Syndrome. If it were, the famous genius Albert Einstein would not have spoken of himself as “an involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve the recognition it received. In a 2013 interview, New Zealander of the Year Richie McCaw discussed how, in the early days of his All Black captaincy, he was uncomfortable leading men who were more experienced players and leaders than he was. “I always wondered how they saw [my decisions]. They always backed you I suppose, but, I guess it was my own insecurities… you’re never quite sure.” How many of us know smart, successful people who doubt their own abilities and achievements?
One of the sneaky things about Impostor Syndrome is it convinces us that we’re the only one feeling this way, and everyone else knows what they’re doing. Because we can only know another person by what they do, or what they tell us, we can never see their insecurities and doubts. We can’t truly know how hard they had to work to complete that report, how nervous they were when suggesting that great idea in the meeting, or how difficult they find the new IT system.