Changing the Narrative on Imposter Syndrome: Shifting from an Individual Diagnosis to a Symptom of Poor Organizational Culture
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 own 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 that describes this phenomenon, celebrate their vulnerability and willingness to openly discuss afflictions – 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 the inclusion of Imposter Syndrome in critical leadership conversations, and I have read arguments that discuss 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 internally when more consideration should be place on Imposter Syndrome as a product of poor organizational culture. For me 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. In fact, 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 in its entirety. I do believe in it. When it is correctly identified. But a 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), it is easier to diagnose an individual with a personal defect than it is to diagnose an organization. But the truth is, organizational culture can impose significant weight on an individual’s professional identity. The pressure to achieve that may exist in some organizations needs to be highlighted and talked about, for the affects it can have 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 fall on the organization as well.
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 when it comes to 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, pushed for outcomes of people rather than the outcomes of the organization. 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 a leader is free to learn and grow, and the pressure is lowered, they can be their authentic selves. 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 coached that it is okay if you don’t have all the answers, just 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. I also believe 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.