Hello, everybody, welcome to a new series of blogs and videos called 'The Coaching Conversation' presented by me, Graham Whiley. I've been coaching business leaders for the last two decades and in this series, we're going to explore some of the things I've seen and learnt in that two decades, that will hopefully help you see how you can become more focused, more effective, and happier in your life.
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In this episode of The Coaching Conversation, I'm going to talk about imposter syndrome. I'll explore it and try and explain to you what it really is, and how it shows up. I'll then share with you some experiences with people I've coached with imposter syndrome and take you through the experiences they had and of how they found ways to overcome it.
So, what is imposter syndrome? Well, I've been reasonably surprised in recent times that imposter syndrome seems to be quite fashionable. It seems to be quite acceptable to be talking about it in a way, whereas a few years ago, that would not have been the case. And indeed, I'm not even sure people would've recognised that term, but they would've recognised, perhaps, the symptoms. Imposter syndrome is simply the point that you believe that you not are not worthy of the job; the role or the responsibilities that you now hold.
For some people, these fears are not small - they're very serious - they grow and grow and grow. They compound in such a way as to create quite serious changes in behaviour. If you think about the fear that is at the root of all of this - the fear of losing your job – this then multiplies into thoughts like 'what's that going to do to my lifestyle? What's that going to do to my standing with my friends and my colleagues? What's that going to do for my career? What's it going to do to the rest of my life? And clearly that's bonkers. Clearly that's a gross exaggeration, because you were already successful. You wouldn't have got the job in the first-place if you weren't trusted to do it. You wouldn't have got the job in the first place if you hadn't got a track record of achievement.
However, if you do find yourself at the head of an organisation that could be in charge of hundreds of people, if not thousands; you could be responsible for one business or many. You could be responsible for things around the world, not just in the UK. So, you could find yourself in a very elevated position that, from humble beginnings, you'd never thought would happen. And at that point, you begin to think ‘why me?’ and in some ways that's a good thing. In some ways that degree of humility, that degree of self-regard is helpful because it keeps you on your toes. It makes you realise you're not perfect. It makes you realise you're not the finished article, and it'll keep you pushing yourself forward and developing yourself in the best ways that you can.
However, as I said, if it gets overblown and you begin to see things through a very distorted lens, the kinds of behaviours that you're going to express start to express are going to get in the way of your success. The sorts of things that happen are clear. The stress that it drives can in itself be a bad thing and make you unwell. But equally, the behaviours that you start to adopt within the business; within the organisation, reflect your desire to protect yourself from being the imposter and being found. So, you'll find yourself not being able to delegate very well. You'll be frightened of things going wrong, and therefore you were actually checking what people were doing, or allowing them the space to take risks, and so things won't happen.
You'll also find yourself super-hyper to political criticism and failure. And that, in turn, may mean you become completely risk averse and you just shut down any potential opportunity to fail. And we all know in business that failure is part of success. You've got to get it wrong to get it right. We also know that as a manager, if you don't lead with confidence, if you don't lead with authority, then it's harder for people working for you to do their jobs. So, all the time you are looking over your shoulder, they'll be looking at you back.
These sorts of lack of confidence. These sorts of inward protection behaviours can, in themselves, multiply. So, the less delegation you do, the more double checking you do. The less time you are actually doing the job you're supposed to be doing, the less thinking time won't be there, the planning time won't be there, the pep talks with the team won't be there, because you're just up here with the work. If you're always adopting a defensive strategy in a meeting, if you're always looking to protect the situation and avoid criticism, you'll end up defending the indefensible in public, looking like a right fool. And I can go on with these examples. You can work it out for yourself.
The truth is this - lack of self-confidence is usually within somebody who is absolutely capable and very, very self-confident on just about every other plane that you could imagine. They’d be great with customers. They'd be great with the team in normal circumstances. So, how does this happen?
Well, as I said before, it either happens the minute that you are promoted and you find yourself in a job that you're unfamiliar with and you feel at risk. If you are an ambitious person, if you're someone who's been through a series of promotions, you may suddenly find yourself grossly over-stressed; thinking that you've been promoted far too quickly. And you're at a point of seniority where you just feel as though you've gone right into the deep end with lead boots on. Well, in the end, somebody trusted you to do this. In the end, someone gave you the opportunity. They must have seen something and they must have felt you were worth the risk.
So, you've got to look at it from their perspective and deal with it from their point of view, which is that they want you to succeed. So, don't let this overwhelm you - If you need help talk to them, if you are somebody who's been in a very senior position for a long time and things have started to get a bit stale, or they're not going as you would like them to go, you might begin to have self-doubt. You might begin to wonder why you are there, may begin to wonder how you fix this, or can you fix this? And that will lead to a general malaise, a general feeling that you are not capable of taking the organisation further than it already is at. That then builds on itself, and builds on itself over time until you get to the imposter syndrome stage.
Now the organisation's culture that you work in will have a major effect on this. If you work in a supportive organisation, the kind of place which wants you to succeed and wants to be part of your development, you'll find it easy to be open and making yourself vulnerable. If you work in an organisation that is much more results orientated; that's much more fixated about when it takes all, and is a highly politically active organisation - this is going to be trickier because, obviously, making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to the public, may well be used against you. You may well be very reluctant, therefore to seek help.
That's the problem here; because the only person who ultimately can fix this is you. You need to work out that this is happening and you need to take steps to deal with it. So, that's a beautiful cue for me to give you two examples of people that I've coached, who had pretty gross problems with imposter syndrome.
The first was leading a business that effectively was project managing a whole series of development projects, construction projects for local communities; a very successful organisation that did excellent work, with a high public profile, and with very little criticism of any value. And yet, the leader really believed that he was no longer able to be the right person to run that organisation. He'd started to do all the things I mentioned earlier - He started to not delegate properly, started to double check the work of senior, capable, professional project managers. He became very, very protective and railed against any form of organisational criticism, or any personal criticism, and was not open to constructive advice and support to the point that his team were very demotivated. He started to lose capable people because they felt that they weren't valued, they felt that they weren't trusted. I think, more importantly, they began to feel that they were no longer part of a successful business organisation that was doing a good job.
The second example is almost comical in the way that it manifests itself. This person, again, was a business leader. He was very successful and a very capable person, and very, very affable. However, he began to believe that he wasn't the right person for the job, but he was never going to admit it, not to himself and not to anybody else. And so, he started to overcompensate. He built up a whole, lifestyle or imagery of never being wrong; of exaggerated hubris, of exaggerated skill sets, and everything was wrong and dealt with in superlatives in an attempt to brush over a particular sense of inadequacy of him or his organisation to the point, as I said a minute ago, it was almost comical.
In both cases, as a coach, it was possible for me to help them unpick what was going on; help them identify the problem for what it was, help them see the fear when they see the fear. You can then, as a coach, encourage them to face it - because this kind of imposter syndrome, particularly when you're a successful person, is clearly forced. The lies that it's telling you don't really exist. It's not realistic. It's exaggerated. So, you face into the fear and then you start to help them, encourage them to find ways to seek the reassurance, to restore their self-confidence.
There are a number of things that they did do, and you can do, if you find this is a problem; the first thing is to talk to people, not necessarily saying ‘oh, dear me, I'm feeling I've got imposter syndrome’, but you can talk to people about how they're finding working with you - Do they like working with you? Are there things they think you could do better?
You could speak to customers in much the same way. You could speak to suppliers in much the same way - You can mask this as some form of public relations survey, some form of customer feedback survey; It doesn't have to be presented to them as though it's all about you. You can also speak one to one with your peer group. You can speak one to one with your boss, or indeed people who work for you in a very similar sort of way. You can join other peer groups; So, YPO (Young President’s Organisation) or Vistage are perfect examples of the cohort of people that will be similar to you and you can get the confidence that they suffer the same sort of challenges that you face, and that you are as capable at dealing with them as they are. You can build a, a relationship with them that enables you to understand that we're all human.
You can do formal 360-degree feedback surveys - If you don't know what they are, they're basically a structured questionnaire that you give out to about a dozen people who you know and trust to give good feedback on you; People who know you at work and they could be within your organisation and outside the organisation, it's painted as a 360 because it could be your supervisor, it could be your juniors. It could be your peer group. As I say, it could be anybody who is used to doing business with you - And our experience of 360-degree feedback is that it frightens people. People are frightened to do them, because they're not really sure what they're going to get told. However, absolutely I can categorically say that when we issue 360-degree surveys (and we do it quite a lot in our coaching programs) we find that the people that have been asked to complete the survey are flattered. They feel absolutely respected that you want their opinion and therefore they take it very, very seriously. They give you honest feedback. I don't think I've ever seen one where there's been a political response or some form of score settling or someone trying to make some kind of point. What it has been is very useful, very pointed, very direct, very honest feedback about someone's performance.
I also recommend that the coachee completes survey so, you therefore get two scores - you get what you think of yourself, and what others think of you. You'll be amazed - they're usually very, very aligned. It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But they're usually very, very aligned. What you think of yourself is usually what other people do too (when you fill it in objectively and honestly, and not suffering from imposter syndrome).
The way that you ultimately overcome imposter syndrome is going to be through rebuilding your self-confidence and celebrating the wins that you have; be they small, be they big. Getting the reassurance from the people around you that they like working with you, and that you’re good at what you do. And the long-term effect is one of trying to make sure you understand that you're as good as anybody else and you just happen to be the fortunate one that has this opportunity to prove it.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you want to overcome imposter syndrome and replace it with ego. I do, as I said before, believe that a degree of humility, a degree of having your feet on the floor, a degree of I'm only human is really helpful - It's part of what keeps you open to learning, it's part of what keeps you open to development, and that in turn knocks on through the organisation that you're running.
So, imposter syndrome - does it exist? Yes. Has it existed for a long time? Yes, forever. Is it something new that we've suddenly discovered and have found new ways of solving? No. Do you need a coach to absolutely overcome imposter syndrome? No, you don't, but it will help; it'll help with accountability, it'll help with unpacking the problem if it's confused with other issues, and it'll keep you absolutely focused on getting your life back.
So, imposter syndrome - I hope that's been helpful. I hope you've enjoyed it. You can find out more about our coaching programmes at theexecutivemindset.co.uk
If you want to reach out you can send me an email at email@example.com or you can book a free 30-minute coaching session at theexecutivemindset.co.uk which will give you a really good feel for how coaching can help you.
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