Lately, I have found myself wrestling with the concept of Imposter Syndrome. While not a new concept, its frequency in our organizational vernacular is increasing, as is our discussion regarding the diagnosis of leaders with this “condition.” For those unfamiliar with this syndrome, it has been described as the act of doubting one's abilities and competencies or an unwillingness to accept earned successes. Leaders have shared very vulnerable stories about their own afflictions with Imposter Syndrome as they come to terms with the shame it has brought them. I find myself wanting to hug each person who describes this phenomenon, celebrate their vulnerability and willingness to discuss afflictions openly – and then proceed to ask them a million questions about the organizations they have worked in and how supported they have felt in each of them.
I have read arguments for including Imposter Syndrome in critical leadership conversations, and I have read arguments discussing how mislabeled and overused it is. I lean towards the latter, only because I feel this is getting too personal. Imposter Syndrome has predominantly been focused on internally when more consideration should be placed on Imposter Syndrome as a product of poor organizational culture. To come to that place, I first investigated what contributes to this phenomenon. Research has suggested this behavioral trait develops in us as children based on expectations imposed by familial values or cultural expectations. A 2013 article published in the American Psychological Association suggested that ‘pressure to achieve’ was the leading contributor to Imposter Syndrome.
Why is it that we inherently assume this pressure system is familial? Why do we assume that individuals affected by this Imposter Syndrome grew up with parents pressuring them to succeed? I can confirm this is not the case with all leaders who have shared their experience with the phenomenon. I am not trying to de-bunk the concept of Imposter Syndrome. I do believe in it. When it is correctly identified. But the pressure to achieve can come in different forms, and that pressure can be just as intense, if not more, as familial pressure.
As suggested in Harvard Business Review’s “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021), diagnosing an individual with a personal defect is easier than diagnosing an organization. But the truth is that organizational culture can impose significant weight on an individual’s professional identity. The pressure to achieve in some organizations must be highlighted and discussed for its effects on a professional. The advice given to leaders who suffer from Imposter Syndrome is all self-focused. But when an organizational culture is the culprit of this pressure to achieve, the remedy should not fall on the professional alone – it should also fall on the organization.
Organizations need to foster environments and values that lift leaders, ones that empower them to embrace the unknowns and instead lead and learn through them. Celebrating an unhealthy work/life balance, high-fiving the act of burning the midnight oil and applauding a results-only culture does nothing to promote leading through learning. Many organizations focus on the end result and outcomes regarding people. But leaders are evolutionary and their process, along with the humanness that comes with learning, it is where the magic lies.
I worked in an environment that focused too much on individual success and pushed for people's outcomes rather than the organization's outcomes. My colleagues clung to their buckets of work, their lanes, their “anything.” This was the structure established by one leader. It shaped how we saw ourselves and how we worked. I could identify with so many aspects of Imposter Syndrome during those times. I didn’t have it before, and thankfully, it doesn’t affect me today. I didn’t need to change my thinking. I didn’t need to fake it until I made it. I needed to believe in myself and leave an unhealthy culture.
When leaders are free to learn and grow, and the pressure is lowered, they can be authentic. While authenticity looks different for everyone, it still removes the mask of being perfect all the time. This is where the Imposter Syndrome shows up- in the “fake it until you make it” space. I was once told that it is okay if you don’t have all the answers; have a plan to get the answers to people when you do. It is hard to feel like an imposter when you are given space to figure things out.
I believe Imposter Syndrome is real. Organizations have a responsibility to their people to assess how the culture and expectations are helping or harming them. That work is scary, and likely to reveal some needed cultural changes. But I also know from experience that you can’t diagnose every organizational issue as a personnel issue.
Tiffany Grandchamp Melnik is the Founder of Women Lifting Women. Her passion for helping women and for equal pay runs blood deep. Tiffany raised three children as a single mother and has experienced the inequities of women in the workplace, stereotyping, and discrimination. Her experiences shaped her educational choices, career path, and, ultimately, the companies she launched. Tiffany spends her time advocating for women, helping companies analyze equity data and re-write policies, writing, coaching, and training leaders, traveling, and spending time with her family.