But that’s OK, and embracing that fact will help you overcome it
We hate to break it to you, but you’re not perfect. Actually, odds are that you not only realize that, you feel like you aren’t good enough. Rita Clifton, author of Love Your Imposter: Be Your Best Self, Flaws and All says rather than putting on a front, we should embrace those feelings of inadequacy and work through them. With 70% of us experiencing imposter syndrome at one time or another—up to 90% for those in creative fields—it really is a normal part of the human condition, and one that can drive us to greater success.
Harnessing the Doubt
The first study that identified imposter syndrome took place in the 1970s looking at high-achieving women with a strong sense of insecurity or inadequacy surrounding their success, as if they didn’t deserve it. Psychologists thought this phenomenon might be isolated to women because of societal views around women in prominent roles in the workplace. But the more they studied, the more they found that imposter syndrome is common across all social spectrums.
“Ironically, sometimes the most successful people identify with imposter syndrome,” Clifton said. “A lot of them talk about it how actually it’s been a really important drive to them.”
That little voice inside of them that tells them they have something to prove becomes a motivational tool, spurring them on to even greater heights. It can be debilitating, giving a minority of people an overwhelming sense of anxiety and stress. But those who can harness the feeling can overcome their imposter. Clifton likens it to an anecdote a martial arts expert once shared with her.
“What they said was that in judo you don’t win by hitting someone or beating them, you actually use their own weight against them to win,” she said.
By turning your own feeling of inadequacy from an opponent to an ally, you can use it as fuel to clear the next hurdle and face the next challenge. Of course, there are good ways and bad ways to go about this.
“A great deal depends on how you look at it, how you treat it, and how you manage it.”
Don’t ‘Fake It Till You Make It”
We’ve all heard the axiom, “fake it till you make it.” Many of us have tried to put it into practice. We might be able to fool people, even ourselves, for a little while. But if we’re not being our authentic selves, eventually the façade will drop. In the end, we gain nothing. Instead, we could better understand ourselves and learn the things we don’t know.
“You can’t fake who you are and what you care about in the role you’re playing day-in, day-out through your working life,” Clifton said, “and if you do that, it can make you miserable or ill.
“There are things that you can do, things you can learn, ways in which you can develop and stretch yourself that actually use your strengths and make the very best of you.”
Since so many of us experience imposter syndrome and it’s such a human thing, being honest about it allows us to connect with others and make them feel comfortable being open and honest with us. By acknowledging and embracing our flaws, we can work on them rather than hiding them and hoping nobody ever finds us out.
“The fact that you’ve got flaws makes you human,” Clifton said. She noted that those dealing with imposter syndrome often procrastinate because they fear doing something imperfectly. By sharing those fears, they can get input from co-workers and realizing that whatever the project is, it’s a work in progress. Just getting started is the first step to making the work as perfect as it can be.
The same advice goes for corporations. Customers will eventually be able to tell if a company is being inauthentic, particularly in a digital world when exuding humanity is all the more important. “If we’re not careful, we will separate people and their humanity from each other,” she said.
Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last
Brands that embrace what they stand for and are open with customers about what drives them perform better than those that try to be all things to all people, Clifton said. “If you look at Unilever, one of the biggest consumer goods organizations in the world, their purpose-led brands are outperforming all the other brands in their portfolio,” she said. “You can see it in a business like Patagonia and some of the new paradigm digital businesses—looking after their people and doing some great stuff from a social point of view. We’re also seeing businesses like Microsoft talk about how they’re going to neutralize all of their carbon emissions from when they started business. There is a market and business performance upside to being a purpose-led business that is trying to do more good in the world.”
On the other side of the coin, the notion that “nice guys finish last” has passed its expiration date.
“People who run organizations who are bullies, who don’t treat their people well, they are becoming risks to their business,” she said. “Not only risks because they lose their talent, you can’t bully people into volunteering extra energy or extra effort or telling people outside the organization that it’s great. This is the thing about the digital age, you can’t pretend you’re a smiley customer service organization on the outside if you’re an axe-murdering culture on the inside.”
People will find out the truth with a scale and a speed that will take your breath away, Clifton said. Sites like Glassdoor enable employees to share what the culture is really like, and talent can be scared away. Bullying can also be expensive from a litigation standpoint.
One of the key risk factors from a business perspective is having an overly domineering CEO. “People don’t like to challenge them and they don’t listen,” Clifton said. “They don’t involve other people in their decisions. People don’t like to give them bad news, and that’s bad news in itself, because stuff can go badly wrong, and people are fearful of telling them.”
Gender-balanced organizations join purpose-driven ones in outperforming their peers in long-term success and lower levels of risk. Better gender balance leads to fuller conversations in the C-suite, which leads to more success. It also leads to happier employees.
“Frankly, if we don’t look after our people, we don’t have a business. People are not automated responses. If you don’t look after your people, they’re not going to look out for your customers as well as they might do. Your staff is part of your long-term valuable assets.”
While adrenaline got us through the early stages of the pandemic, fatigue is setting in. Admitting we don’t have all the answers but striving to find them and share them is the way we move forward.
Rita Clifton is a regular columnist and media commentator, as well as author of ‘The Future of Brands’ and two editions of The Economist ‘Brands and Branding’. ‘Love your imposter’ is available for order at www.koganpage.com/love-your-imposter)