How to manage impostor syndrome in the recovery (ILM Article)

Asking leaders to coach their younger selves has led coaching experts Dr Phil Renshaw and Dr Jenny Robinson to uncover fascinating insights on the workings of impostor syndrome. Here, they explain how the problem arises – and how managing it will help leaders tackle the recovery.

Why would it be useful to ask leaders – as we have done in our research – to coach their younger selves? And how would that help them contain the spectre of impostor syndrome?

Well, one of the central tenets of coaching is that it’s not about directing people, but guiding them. You’re asking questions, listening and exploring. So, if you ask leaders – as a sort of thought experiment – to coach their younger selves, it could encourage them to think about how they might more usefully pitch leadership advice, so it has the greatest impact.

When we’re asked to address our younger selves in this way, we also tend to be much kinder and more empathetic towards that self than to who we are in the present. Sure, there are always areas where we could have done better. But most of us can see that we were never malicious or dangerous. Broadly, we have done the best we could. And that sense of reassurance – gained from reframing our perspective – is a welcome antidote to the nagging, strident, perfection-seeking voice that often goes hand in hand with impostor syndrome.

In our assessment, it’s a mistake to think that impostor syndrome is directly linked to overwhelm. Issues around overwhelm typically arise from the volume or type of work – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you think you’re in the wrong place. Impostor syndrome is more of a deep-seated worry that works almost like a ruminative mantra: “I shouldn’t be here – how did I get this senior without anyone saying anything?” So, at its heart, it’s a confidence issue.

It’s also important to pinpoint where impostor syndrome sits within the spectrum of our personalities. Good people doubt themselves all the time. Indeed, probably only sociopaths never suffer from self-doubt. So perhaps lack of doubt is a far more worrying trait! But essentially, we can consider this dynamic as a sliding scale, with extreme doubt on one end and hubris on the other as comparably undesirable ways of being. Questioning your ability, or whether you’re doing the right thing, is to be supported. But when self-doubt becomes a hurtful, internal clamour, that’s when someone is wrestling with a genuine concern.

In our work, we tend to resist linear, cause-and-effect relationships – we believe that life is by and large messy, multifaceted and multidirectional. But crunch times when a leader’s impostor syndrome is likely to dominate are scenarios in which the stakes around a key decision are particularly high, or where there are intense deadline pressures.

However, over and above those moments, there’s a far more important, human factor: we are creatures of community, hardwired to constantly monitor whether or not we’re in favour with our tribe. Back in our species’ hunter-gatherer past, if we were kicked out of our tribe, that would be a life-threatening event. So, we have a basic, neurological need for belonging. As coaches, we’ve worked with leaders who are struggling to believe in their own abilities at the same time they’re facing into the teeth of an argument with the board. That’s a tough mixture – and yet we expect these individuals to have the stamina and wherewithal to do that as a matter of routine. It’s clear, then, that leaders need a tribe around them – not sycophants, but people who can by turns challenge them and raise them up. And belonging is a much-overlooked part of that equation.

David Bowie once said that when artists are slightly out of their depth, they are in the right place to do something exciting. The same may also be said of leaders. Stretch is how we improve our abilities and uncover new talents. But too much stretch equals stress – so a crucial part of leading is to find that edge where you’re discovering new things and being creative, but also maintaining self-care.

As the pandemic continues, we’re seeing so much newness and unfamiliarity that the nagging voice of impostor syndrome may be more prominent. The key to facing it down is an acknowledgement that it’s happening, which will create situations where you can discuss it with those around you. That openness and coming together around the problem will in turn help to boost confidence and self-belief.

In our view, the phrase that would most accurately describe what the future holds is ‘never normal’. Leaders will have to get used to the idea of engaging with constant evolution, throughout a series of often choppy changes. On that basis, we recommend: get a coach. Or, at any rate, form a mentoring relationship with other leaders who you trust and respect – people who will provide the empathy you need to reinforce your sense of belonging, but who will also challenge you, check your biases and encourage you to always think from different points of view.


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