“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”

In previous blogs I have referenced how on occasion in the work environment I have found myself in a situation where my view was being sought and – based upon my views and experience – a strategy of action formed.  Often in those situations I would look around the room and see faces of people who I felt had equal if not greater levels of knowledge and experience and I would feel uncomfortable, expecting my views to be challenged and opinions undermine – at worst I feared being exposed as a charlatan, resulting in a complete loss of my credibility.  If I reflect on those moments, the reality was that I was often challenged and in most situations was more than capable of parrying and rebutting any contrary views.  Frequently, I would leave the meeting feeling deflated that I did not receive more challenge – particularly as I would have invariably prepped extensively for the meeting, trying to pre-empt likely questions. 

I know through my readings around ‘imposter syndrome’ that the emotion of uncertainty and feeling of undeserved position of hierarchy in the organisation are shared by many, indeed one study estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of imposter phenomenon in their lives.[i]   It would be interesting to know the comparative statistic for those suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which low ability people have outsized confidence in their abilities:  I can certainly think of a few candidates!  But returning to imposter syndrome, the descriptions associated with its characteristics are generally negative – self-doubt, anxiousness, worry.  Moreover, the feelings can continue after the event.  If someone has made a successful decision after much procrastination, they may devalue their input as simply down to luck; those who over-prepare for a presentation may chastise themselves after the event for not being as efficient.

A study by Basima Tewfik, assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may shine a more positive light on the attributes of imposter syndrome.  Basima conducted two studies; one with employees of an investment solutions company, the other with medical students – within each she identified cohorts of people with imposter syndrome.  The research distinguished between how the individuals felt and how they are perceived by others.  In the study of the investment advisers those with feelings of imposter syndrome were considered to be better collaborators by their managers.  They were judged to have higher motivational levels and better interpersonal skills.  The medical student cohort were found to have a better bed-side manner.  In particular, she found that ‘they were more empathetic, they were better listeners, they asked better questions.’[ii]

These findings do not necessarily help address those feelings of insecurity, but the suggestion is that if you tap into these feelings, you’ll drive yourself to do better.  It is almost as if the self-doubt will encourage one to over-compensate, which is reflected in the outcome.  As there undoubtedly is a greater awareness of imposter syndrome and more people willing to talk about their workplace uncertainties – particularly among very senior managers, that feeling of not being alone can act to mitigate some of the negative emotions.  If this is the case however, I do wonder if this may perversely undermine or negate the effect that Tewfik talks of – if we reconcile and normalise our feelings, will that somehow make us more complacent about the work we do?  Or perhaps that assumes a very rational response to something which is inherently irrational at heart.

[i] Gravois, 2007 – referenced in The Impostor Phenomenon International Journal of Behavioral Science 2011, Vol.  6, No.1, 75-97 ISSN: 1906-4675

[ii] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210315-the-hidden-upside-of-imposter-syndrome

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