The Value of Imposter Syndrome

Nyx
4 min readNov 9, 2023
Photo by Михаил Секацкий on Unsplash

Recently I spoke to a mentor of mine in the workspace for advice on how to navigate imposter syndrome, and her response triggered this article. TLDR: the best leaders share a balance of humility and confidence, along with an openness and willingness to learn.

Note: While this article focuses more on the broader feelings of imposter syndrome and how it relates to leadership, Tolshyan & Burey offer an interesting perspective in HBR worth considering here: https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome While nearly everyone has had reduced feelings of confidence, Imposter Syndrome tends to affect women and people of color because the space they’re in typically wasn’t built for them.

Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: an Article

The origins of the term “Impostor Phenomenon” date back to 1978 from a psychology article [1] by Drs. Clanes & Imes on its occurrence in high achieving women. Their definition brings up an interesting clarification: that the standards of achievement we feel we’re missing are self-imposed. The article states that “…women tend to explain failure with lack of ability, while men more often attribute failure to luck or task difficulty” (242). While the focus of the article is on women, mainly in academia, imposter syndrome can affect many minority-represented groups in various professional settings. It has since been documented in many other academic spaces including the Library of Medicine [2].

Cultural Echoes

The conclusions from the article are echoed in many other studies and cultural references, showing that its stake in a scientific article resonated across wide audiences. Some of the more popular examples include:

  • Image Editorial names a “Not Doing Enough” syndrome [3].
  • The Atlantic references the “Confidence Gap” [4].
  • LinkedIn article calls out confidence as one of the reasons why there aren’t enough women in STEM [5].
  • Hewlett Packard investigated differences in men and women applying to HP to find the now well-known statistic that women only apply to jobs they feel confident in 100% of the qualifications noted by Forbes [6].
  • Forbes writes on a KPMG study that finds that 75% Of women executives experience Imposter Syndrome in the workplace [7].

So if its definition spurred in the 1970s, but it continues to have reverberations throughout our society today, is there a way to harness the feeling to our advantage? To acknowledge the feeling as a strength?

Does Overconfidence Have a Place?

First let’s swing to the opposite extreme: overconfidence. My mentor expressed to me that many leaders suffer from overconfidence. Overconfidence can push you through a meeting with a stake at a table that you may not have otherwise been invited to. Harvard Business Review even argued against the grain, in a study of CEOs in which they found overconfidence can support long-term business relationships and innovation [8]. However, overconfidence has the potential to land you jobs that you’re unqualified to execute on, placing your team or your product in a precarious position. Studies have shown that having too much confidence can also:

  • impede learning,
  • cause an avoidance of constructive feedback
  • lead to less complex problem-solving
  • and a hyperfocus on only opportunities that affirm one’s overconfidence [9]

Does Imposter Syndrome Have Any Benefits?

Clearly, the happy medium of having just enough confidence would be ideal. But as we continue to grow our perspectives on our own self-worth and value, perhaps we can unearth the benefits to having imposter syndrome. The ones that allows us to lead with humility, and to understand that our success is reliant on others’ expertise as well. One of these is vulnerability.

Being vulnerable can be a valuable asset, particularly as a leader [10]. We learn in uncomfortable spaces. Vulnerability fosters a growth mindset. The differences that make us stand out with a feeling of “I don’t belong here”, are often the same diverse perspectives needed to shift the status quo, foster safe spaces, and tell a comprehensive data story.

Beyond vulnerability, while Imposter Syndrome represents an extreme, being open to you not being the most expert in the room is ultimately a benefit.

My mentor told me:

The recognition that one’s own perspective alone is insufficient drives a collaborative and team-driven mentality that appreciates diversity of thought and experiences.

It is the openness to this diversity that informs creativity and innovation. These qualities differentiate leaders in the workspace, products amongst competition, and entities in the field that drive societal reform humbly while leaving space for others. It also drives them to lean on clients as the experts in their field, ensuring their voices are heard and their confidence is built. These are the leaders that value multiple aspects of one’s identity and whose attitude on learning makes the world both immense and tangible all at once.

These are the leaders who hire people who are more skilled and talented than themselves, and in return build much stronger teams. They recognize that the more they know, the less they know — allowing for learning, questioning, and resourcefulness.

So the next time your imposter mindset creeps in, remind yourself that those are the same feelings that will make you listen more intently, practice more effectively, advocate more adamantly, and ultimately, pay attention to the diverse and valuable details that other leads may miss.

References

  1. https://mpowir.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Download-IP-in-High-Achieving-Women.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK585058/#:~:text=Introduction,accomplishments%20among%20high%2Dachieving%20individuals.
  3. https://www.image.ie/editorial/not-enough-syndrome-female-affliction-150879
  4. https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theatlantic.com%2Fmagazine%2Farchive%2F2014%2F05%2Fthe-confidence-gap%2F359815%2F
  5. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-arent-enough-women-stem-whole-truth-nothing-riham-satti/
  6. https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2014/04/28/act-now-to-shrink-the-confidence-gap/?sh=7fcab9cd5c41
  7. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lucianapaulise/2023/03/08/75-of-women-executives-experience-imposter-syndrome-in-the-workplace/?sh=68e1977e6899
  8. https://hbr.org/2018/06/can-being-overconfident-make-you-a-better-leader
  9. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0959475211000685
  10. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1350507621995816

--

--

Nyx

Psychology | Data Science & Viz | Social Justice | Spanish