Faking it? Why the imposter phenomenon may be a barrier to the post-Covid ‘new normal’

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Written by Dr Theresa Simpkin on 31 July 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

Dr Theresa Simpkin looks at the more serious implications of imposter syndrome.

As the response to Covid-19 moves from initial crisis response to economic and social recovery, attention is rightly being paid to the value of diversity

Throughout the past few months, calls to maintain a vigilant focus on a commitment to diversity of thinking, decision-making and representation have perhaps been overshadowed by discussions of the tragedy of human lives lost as well as tales of heroism of key workers.

Lockdown arrangements, and those flouting them, have created diversion of journalists’ attention and plans for economic rebound are at the forefront of media reportage.

While the business case for inclusion and societal imperatives to expand the notion of equity of opportunity have been longstanding ideals, genuine broad ranging results are slow in coming and often deliver a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ outcome.

It is indicative of equality, diversity and inclusion strategies that rely on quick fixes rather than digging into the very fabric of organisational and societal structures preventing effective, perhaps radical, change.

Barriers to inclusion

While there are many barriers to effective inclusion, one is the experience often known as ‘imposter syndrome’. First theorised in the mid-70s, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes identified the ‘imposter phenomenon’ (IP) as an often-crippling experience of believing oneself to be faking it.

It is a pressing strategic imperative to remove barriers such as those associated with the imposter phenomenon.

They defined the experience as an illogical sense of intellectual fraudulence often found in highly capable people. Misnamed a ‘syndrome’ and often trivialised by pithy popular media stories, the seriousness of the actuality of imposter phenomenon runs the risk of being dismissed as fad or fantasy.

Over 40 years of research examining the imposter phenomenon provide compelling evidence of serious workplace impediments to diversity and inclusion as well as negatively impacting mental health, innovation and productivity. There has rarely been a time when inclusion of diverse experiences, ideas and voices has been as important and where new thinking and better decision-making is demanded. 

It is a pressing strategic imperative to remove barriers such as those associated with the imposter phenomenon. Understanding and addressing the ‘intense feeling of intellectual fraudulence’ is key to diminishing personal and workplace obstacles to reimagining how our work and communities will operate post-pandemic.

Innovation for a ‘better normal’

There has been much discussion of the potential for reimagining our world post pandemic. In order to realise a ‘better normal’ rather than ‘business as usual’ organisations must navigate through a landscape with a truly inclusive approach.

 

This relies on giving value to the presence and input of those who may be perceived as ‘other’ and those who have the capacity to innovate.

This will include those who want to work differently (e.g. parents, those with caring responsibilities, those who have alternate or additional passions), those who want access to greater opportunity but who may have been locked out due to race, gender, disability, neurodiversity or social background for example, and those who bring divergent, more creative, ‘business as usual-busting’ ideas.  

However, the imposter phenomenon feeds on ‘otherness’. Those that have been marginalised, previously left out of decision-making and those who may have struggled with embedded or implicit biases. For example, there has been a long history of agitation to improve gender diversity in senior leadership and government.

Indeed, the government’s response to Covid-19 has brought criticism for its lack of gender diversity given the critical need for more expansive views of the world beyond the white, elite, male view. 

Minimal presence of women in senior leadership roles as delivered by a pervasive ‘one and done’ (where a cursory nod to gender diversity is achieved by adding a single woman to a board or leadership team for example) approach ‘feeds’ experiences of imposter phenomenon. 

For example, women who experience an unwarranted (but real) fear of failure, exposure as an ‘imposter’ or feeling of being ‘unqualified’ are likely to externalise their successes, attributing their achievements to luck, being in the right place at the right time or some other mechanism unrelated to their own capacities. This limits self-efficacy required for reimagination, innovation and challenge to prevailing thought.

‘One and done’ strategies hamper opportunities for re-imagination as people perceived to be in a minority group are more likely to experience ‘imposter’ feelings and will often fail to highlight their own capabilities to do more challenging roles, or innovate or take on entrepreneurial roles.


Talent management and succession structures often rely on individuals identifying their own strengths, capabilities and past achievements.

However, people experiencing imposter phenomenon not only face significant discomfort in speaking about their past successes or they may not even recognise them; often dismissing praise or good feedback entirely or attributing good work to luck, other people or ‘it’s just my job’.

This is not false modesty or a fishing exercise for compliments. It is a genuine disregard of past success. Those responsible for the development of talent must recognise the language and behaviour of IP in individuals and be able to support those who experience it in order to fully use the latent talent that exists in the organisation.

This is particularly so in times of crisis and renewal. If we are to have inclusive talent enhancement practices in our workplaces, then it is incumbent on organisations to examine the imposter phenomenon with less social media spin and more serious, evidence-based responses.

If workplaces are to assume a mission of providing an environment where potential can be enhanced and talent harnessed for the good of the individual as well as the business, then it must consider how structures, processes and cultures may well be fuelling inner imposter fears. 

To fully leverage the value that diverse experience and ideas bring to a post Covid-19 ‘better normal’, organisations must counter structural barriers to inclusion in genuine, effective and socially embedded ways. Until then, the imposter phenomenon will continue to feed on perceived ‘otherness’ robbing individuals and communities of their capacity to add value to emerging ways of working and living. 

 

About the author

Dr Theresa Simpkin is Associate Professor and Director of Executive MBA/Senior Leadership Degree Apprenticeship and Head of MBA Programmes (International) at Nottingham University Business School, University of Nottingham. She is also author of the ‘Braver Stronger Smarter’ programmes www.braverstrongersmarter.com

 

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