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Boardroom Imposters

May 29, 2022

by Alice Sayant, ICD.D

It seems that lately, everywhere I go, someone is talking about imposter syndrome.

First it was a recent Savvy Saturday online discussion about Cultivating Your Influence in the Boardroom.

Then a conversation with board directors at the inaugural Women Get on Board Summit.

And then, just the other day, a chat with a friend during a brisk walk in the park to mark spring’s arrival (finally!) on the Canadian prairies.

You see where this is going, of course. At DirectorPrep, our natural response to such a series of events is to write a Savvy Director article about imposter syndrome in the boardroom.

 

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the thought or fear that you are not capable, worthy, or good enough to be included in a particular group — such as a board of directors — or to fulfill a certain role — such as that of a board director.

People experiencing imposter syndrome believe they’re undeserving of their achievements and the esteem in which they’re held. They feel they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others think they are — and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.

According to Psychology Today, it’s not really a syndrome at all. It’s not classified as a psychological disorder and there’s no such thing as being diagnosed with imposter syndrome. Instead, it’s a mindset – a set of beliefs that shape how you make sense of the world and yourself, influencing how you think, feel, and behave in any given situation.

Imposter syndrome is associated with certain personality types, such as perfectionism and a strong need to be validated by others. It seems to occur most often in competitive environments, although it’s been observed in pretty much every profession and demographic group.

Typical thought patterns associated with imposter syndrome include self-talk such as:

  • People can see through me.
  • I’m a fraud.
  • What makes me think I’m qualified for this role?
  • Everyone else has more experience than me.
  • I’m not worthy.
  • Why did I think I could do this?

Psychologists first coined the term imposter syndrome in the late 1970s when they found that highly-accomplished women frequently confessed to feeling unintelligent and unworthy of their success, despite evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps this original research is the reason that the thought patterns and behaviors associated with imposter syndrome were once thought to predominantly affect women. Subsequent studies have found men and women in roughly equal numbers experience imposter syndrome, particularly during major transitions in their life when unpredictability is high.

Imposter syndrome is not rare at all. Most people experience it sooner or later. Research suggests that around 70 percent of adults experience imposter syndrome at least once in their life, and 25 to 30 percent of high achievers may experience it far more often than that.

Bottom line is – if you feel like an imposter in the boardroom occasionally, or even frequently, you’re not alone.

Fortunately, while you can’t make it go away entirely, there are some tried-and-true ways of dealing with imposter syndrome.

 

Impossible Standards of Competence

Dr. Valerie Young, author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It,” is an internationally-recognized expert on imposter syndrome and co-founder of the Imposter Syndrome Institute. She has delivered her Rethinking Imposter Syndrome™ program to hundreds of corporations and universities around the world.

Much of what you read in the rest of this article is derived from Dr. Young’s work. I encourage you to watch Dr. Young in action delivering the TED Talk “Thinking Your Way Out of Imposter Syndrome.”

According to Dr. Young, imposter syndrome goes beyond a mere lack of confidence. After all, everyone experiences bouts of self-doubt from time to time — especially when attempting something new. But, for “imposters,” the self-doubt is chronic.

For instance, it would be normal for a person to have the jitters before giving their first speech. If they did well, they would draw from the experience to feel more confident the next time, and their confidence about giving speeches would gradually increase.

But imposters don’t think that way. No matter how well they did, they’d find a way to explain their success away. So, wins don’t produce that same bump in confidence.

A person’s notion of what it means to be competent has a powerful impact on how competent they end up feeling. Everyone has unconscious rules in their head about what it means to be competent. These rules tend to begin with should, always, or never - as in, “If I were truly competent, I should know everything in my field,” “I would always know the answer,” or “I would never be confused.”

People who feel like imposters hold themselves to an extremely high standard of competence – often unrealistic and unsustainable. But they don’t all define competence the same way. Dr. Young identified five different Competence Types — each with its own unique focus:

  • Perfectionists. Their primary focus is on how something is done, how work is conducted, and how it turns out. For perfectionists, one minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance equals failure.
  • Experts. Their primary concern is on what they know and how much they can do. For experts, even a minor lack of knowledge or ability denotes failure.
  • Soloists. They care mostly about who completes the task. Because of a need to do and figure out everything on their own, needing help is a sign of failure.
  • Natural Geniuses. They measure competence in terms of ease and speed. If a natural genius has to struggle to master a skill or isn’t able to produce a masterpiece on the first try, that equals failure.
  • Superheroes. They measure competence based on how many roles they can juggle and excel in. Because a superhero feels they should be able to handle everything perfectly and easily, falling short in any role equals failure.

Regardless of which competence type best describes them, people who feel like imposters feel a sense of shame when they (inevitably) fail to reach their self-imposed standard of competence – no matter how unrealistic that standard is.

“It doesn’t matter how intelligent or talented or skilled you are right now, I have news for you. You are never going to consistently reach that insanely high bar you’ve set for yourself – ever.” – Dr. Valerie Young

That’s why dealing with imposter syndrome requires a mindset adjustment — a change to our self-limiting thoughts about what it takes to be competent. This redefining process is the fastest path to confidence.

 

Stop Thinking Like an Imposter

“The only way to stop feeling like an imposter, is to stop thinking like an imposter.” – Dr. Valerie Young

The goal of Dr. Young’s work is not to get people to overcome imposter syndrome, but to deal with it by changing their mindset — thinking differently and talking themselves down faster.

People who don’t feel like imposters are no more intelligent or capable than those who do. The difference is one of mindset. During the same situation that would trigger an imposter feeling in some of us, non-imposters think different thoughts. So, all we have to do is learn to think like a non-imposter.

We have to think differently before we can start to feel differently. After a while the feelings will catch up, and we’ll start to feel less and less like an imposter.

Dr. Young offers three core tips for thinking differently. Each of them requires reframing — identifying, challenging, and changing the way we view situations, experiences, or events.

1. Reframe failure. Rather than thinking of failure as an ending, consider it a new opportunity to achieve the results you want. Ask yourself, “What is the opportunity here?” For example, athletes replay game tapes to figure out what they did wrong and improve their performance.

2. Reframe competency. Whether they’re perfectionists, experts, or superheroes, people who feel they have to know everything or do everything right are less forgiving of themselves. It’s important to allow ourselves to feel entitled to make mistakes and not know all the answers. That’s how we can take advantage of the opportunity to learn and grow.

3. Reframe fear. Although it would be nice to feel confident all the time, that’s just not how life works. The reality is that everyone has moments of uncertainty. When you feel that way, try reframing your fear as excitement. Your body can’t tell the difference, so the next time you’re nervous, just keep telling yourself that you’re excited.

“You can still have an imposter moment, but not an imposter life.” – Dr. Valerie Young

For those who would like a few more specific tips on dealing with imposter syndrome, I encourage you to read “10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Imposter Syndrome” by Dr. Young. The link is in the Resources section below.

 

Your takeaways:

  • People experiencing imposter syndrome feel they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others think they are.
  • Almost everyone feels like an imposter at one time or another, but for some people it’s chronic.
  • The core of imposter syndrome is a self-imposed impossibly high standard of competence.
  • To stop feeling like an imposter requires a new mindset – we have to stop thinking like an imposter.

 

Resources:

 

Thank you.

Alice

Alice Sayant is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and, along with Scott Baldwin and Dave Jaworksi, a co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.

 

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