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  • Writer's pictureNick Palliser

Personal Confidence and the Dreaded Impostor Syndrome

A large part of my works begins when a senior manager of some description calls me to say they have a member of their team who needs help. Since they are reaching out to me it is likely that the individual in question is not coming up to scratch in terms of their "impact". That is the baseline part of the conversation. I will then ask them to describe the problem as they see it. I can broadly describe the usual issues as follows:

  1. They are too quiet and don't contribute enough in meetings.

  2. They show no initiative and need to be told what to do.

  3. They are too controlling and unable to delegate.

  4. Their attitude is not good. They tend to bully and belittle people.

What do all these traits have in common? They are symptomatic of low confidence or self-belief. That might seem blindingly obvious in cases 1 & 2, but probably less so in 3 & 4.

It is certainly true that this self realisation will come to clients in categories 1, 2 & 3 much sooner. Because of the nature of those in category 4 would appear to contradict this, it does take longer but, in most cases it is possible to make them at least explore the possibility that their behaviour is a form of self preservation. It often obscures a deep seated insecurity that is too scary for others to see. Ironically, these tougher, or should I say more resistant clients often suffer more severely from the Impostor Syndrome.

So what is the Impostor Syndrome for those who are not familiar with it? It is basically a fear within most of us, that it is only a matter of time before we will be found out: that everyone thinks we know what we are talking about, but deep down we feel we are constantly "winging" it. Eventually our cover will be blown and everyone will see us for the incompetent impostors we really are.

It was originally coined in the article "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes* in 1978. For a long time it was assumed to be an issue that was reserved for women in business. Not surprisingly, over the past forty odd years, psychologists and coaches have observed that it is far from unique to women. Women are simply more liable to express their vulnerability. In addition, the cringing patriarchal work environment was pretty much designed to make women feel inferior.

Nowadays, although a great many men are far more in touch with their emotions and vulnerabilities, I still observe a lingering attitude of "I can't show my feelings or they'll think I'm weak." It is changing. I have observed a marked improvement in the fifteen years I have been coaching, but we are not out of the woods yet. The responsibility clearly lies in the cultures of the individual organisations.

In my work I am lucky enough to observe different organisations. Those where the old school are still in charge, there is a prevalence of Alpha, hard nosed cultures. In others where the old wood has retired and younger, more aware people have taken the reins, the attitudes have changed hugely. In some cases I have been able to observe the change taking place. It is no surprise that these are the same organisations that take such causes as racial and gender diversity, the environment and corporate responsibility very seriously.

Recently, I was asked by a financial services firm to design a program to help their partners improve their C-Suite** communication skills. Although I was going to work with the dozen or so partners in one to one sessions, we decided to launch the program with a group plenary session. My thinking was that I didn't want any of the partners to feel they being singled out because they were weak in this area, but in fact that it was a skill set that was vital for them to hone.

The first thing I did was ask them, in turn, in front of everyone, where they felt they could get value from these coaching sessions. The first two or three came out with pretty tepid things such as "I would like to know how to prepare better" or "I'm already pretty good in C-Suite meetings, but would be interested to be better" etc. Then, the magical moment happened, unprompted might I add. Their boss, a big, burly, tough looking man who was the one I was most trepidatious about, paused for a second and said, "Nick, I am hoping you can help me with my nightmare Impostor Syndrome. I am constantly terrified of being found out." The room went totally silent, then they all started talking over each other agreeing with their boss, "me too" and "oh my god, me too". It was amazing. I will always be grateful to him for having the courage to show his vulnerability and express his fears in front of his own senior team. I made my job a great deal easier as the individual sessions started.

Another good example was when a top tier executive in a global bank asked me to help him, ostensibly with his fear of public speaking. He was a man who had spent his entire career in the trenches and trading floors and had recently been appointed to this senior managerial role. He was in a position where he had to deliver town hall presentations, media interviews etc. This was making him anxious. After a short while and my allowing him to delve a little deeper, he said: " Look, the truth is, I have no idea why they picked me. I have no idea what I am doing. When I walk out onto the floors of the bank they must all be thinking, "he's a trader, he doesn't know how to run this show!". He felt like an impostor. He got past this in time, but I am convinced we wouldn't have got there if he hadn't had the courage to voice these words out loud. It also goes to show that, contrary to what many people believe, the higher you climb the ladder, the tougher it gets if you don't face your demons.

I am not saying that the Impostor Syndrome can be eradicated. After all, it is that very humility and self awareness that makes us balanced humans and sets us apart from sociopaths, but we can certainly overcome it to a great extent with a little help. However the journey can only begin by having the courage to admit we are afraid.

© Nick Palliser 2020

* Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention"(PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247

** C-Suite - a shorthand expression referring to senior members of an organisation: CEO, CFO, CTO etc.

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