Have you heard of Imposter Syndrome? I attended a conference a few months ago where the topic was discussed, and I have been fascinated ever since. I’ve been asking everyone, especially other women, what they think (along with reading all about it). So, when I met Whitney Eichinger, Managing Director of Culture and Employee Engagement for Southwest Airlines, at a leadership event, I asked her too. She brought some interesting ideas to the table, which we shared on our conversation we had on Parent. Boss. Leader.

Beforehand, I didn’t know much about the ubiquitous phrase. I discovered the original term for Imposter Syndrome was Imposter Phenomenon. In the 1970’s psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance studied high achieving women who doubted their professional success. Women reported feeling that they lacked talent and intelligence; they feared they would be discovered and exposed as frauds.

The term has since expanded beyond this academic study to encompass a broader meaning. It’s that feeling you aren’t quite ready to be in a specific situation because you don’t have the necessary skills and experience, when there is in fact actual proof you do. Yes, it often occurs in high achieving career people, but it can affect any of us at any time. Whitney and I laughed about feelings of oh my goodness, I’m someone’s mother, and should I be a homeowner? And no doubt many of us have felt the weight of this thought: Am I really a grownup?

Professionally is another matter. Whitney explained that she thinks these feeling creeps in as “you mature in your career, especially once you are put in leadership positions and your decisions mean more. You feel very responsible for people and maybe feel more like an imposter. You worry more that you’re not qualified to make those decisions. When you start out in your career, you don’t know what you don’t know,” she laughed. “But the longer you are in the universe, the more you understand you don’t know everything!”

And I agree. I think my role as a team leader causes me the most worry. Am I helping them learn and grow professionally? Do I really know what’s best? Am I qualified? The doubts creep in. When you lack confidence in your abilities, that’s not necessarily a bad thing though. In fact, Whitney and I talked about how practicing humility in our interactions with others and our decision-making process is beneficial. Recognizing that you don’t know everything and reaching out to others to gain their perspective and expertise is a good thing!It becomes a negative when that doubt keeps you from making decisions. Imposter Syndrome has real consequences. Whitney and I assumed that doctors probably never feel this way. Obviously, doctors are competent and talented, but it turns out doctors feel it too. Actually medical professionals feel this syndrome at a higher rate, according to a Stanford University study, which also showed higher rates of burnout, and turnover, etc. compared to other professions.

The study also found that women physicians strongly struggle with feelings of inadequacies, along with those from minority groups. Additionally, men are more likely to apply for a job when they only meet 80% of the stated qualifications, whereas women and minorities often hesitate even when they have 100%. Imposter Syndrome contributes to holding them back personally, and potentially keeps you from a great hire. How can we combat these struggles? So glad you asked.

How To Beat Imposter Syndrome

Change can happen on multiple fronts, especially when it comes to hiring.

We can craft better job descriptions, ones that don’t add unnecessary or “nice to have” qualifications that deter candidates. And we can make sure that a job posting is welcoming and encourages people to apply, rather than contributing to feelings of inadequacy using gendered or biased language.

More importantly, we can recognize that Imposter Syndrome is real and work to help people understand, express, and alleviate these feelings. The Stanford study has several recommendations including peer discussions, professional coaching, and mentoring younger doctors to help them avoid it sooner. These are applicable across professions. Instead of suffering in silence we can help ourselves and each other by being open about it.

Whitney tries to remember she isn’t the only one feeling this way. Simply understanding that she is not alone helps her quiet the inner negative voice trying to undermine her, which underscores how beneficial talking about Imposter Syndrome can be.

Those of us in leadership roles, management, and mentorship can help avoid or alleviate the syndrome by discussing it with our teams, especially those most vulnerable to the effects. We know that diversity in the workforce leads to more innovation, growth, and profits, so we should offer support however we can, including addressing issues that stand in the way of success.

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