KATE ATKIN

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Imposter Phenomenon – MOD

It was an absolute pleasure to speak to you about the impact of the imposter phenomenon and I hope you enjoyed the discussions.

On this page you will find some extra information on the imposter phenomenon (as you now know, it isn’t really a syndrome) which is based on my own research and that of other experts. In addition, there are some other useful links plus suggestions of TED talks and further reading.

While there is no ‘quick fix’, to overcome the imposter chatter, remembering that self-doubt and IP are not one and the same can be helpful. Self-doubt is normal and useful if you are doing something for the first, second and maybe third time. IP is where you already have a track record of success, but you have not internalised it. Remembering the difference and starting to discuss it, helping others talk about it and remembering that we are all ‘works in progress’ is a good starting point.

There’s a lovely book by Charlie Mackesy called The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse which I mentioned during the Q&A. In there the boy asks the mole “what is the biggest waste of time?” and the mole replies “comparing yourself to others”.  Instead, start to compare yourself to yourself and recognise where you have grown, what you have learnt, what skills you have developed.  Those experiencing the imposter chatter often continue to learn, but don’t pause to reflect on what they have learnt. Time to pause I’d suggest. The book is available from many bookshops and of course online too!

 

Here are some of the questions we didn’t get to during the Q&A – so many to choose from! These have been summarised from the ones that were ‘upvoted’ in Sli.do.

 

  • How do you prevent self-doubt (which is normal) becoming so dominant that it constrains personal development?

I’ve never liked the phrase “get out of your comfort zone”, and I think normal self doubt encourages us to stay where we are comfortable. But as you say in the question, it isn’t what aids our own development. Research indicates that a reframe from nervous to excited can help as the psychological and physiological responses are remarkably similar. I prefer to use a phrase, attributed to Ray Kroc (founder of McDonalds), in which he says there are two states in life: you can be either green and growing or ripe and rotting. The choice is yours. I decided a long time ago to choose green and growing; so when the nerves come and I don’t feel like doing something, and would prefer a duvet day, I reframe it to green and growing, take a deep breath and do it anyway. Usually the outcome is positive, and often better than I thought it would be.

There’s also a school of thought that if you do small things every day that stretch you just a little bit, you become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, so the nerves are no longer inhibiting action, learning or growth.

 

  • Have you any practical advice for CV writing and interviews when suffering imposter syndrome (phenomenon)?

My first thought was “get someone else to write it”! I needed my husband’s help when writing my personal statement to get onto my MSc course, I simply couldn’t find the words myself.

Knowing your strengths, as well as reviewing the positive feedback (which you will now be keeping!) can also help with populating the CV. Be proud of what you’ve done, now is not the time for humility (in fact C. S. Lewis is supposed to have said that “true humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less”. So think about what the job needs, what the person spec says and what the interviewers need to hear. 

The STAR structure when in an interview is extremely useful – a short overview of the Situation and the Task, followed by the use of “I” in the Actions, with quantifiable or qualitative data when you explain the Results.

A really good way of structuring CVs, which may help as it focusses on results, is Jon Moon’s recommendation of using Words in Tables. See this link to his website and free downloads of the CV template, and if you write reports, his book Clarity & Impact is well worth getting hold of.

 

  • Has any research been done into imposter syndrome (phenomenon) and links with socio-economic background / childhood?

To date, there is very little research on this. I have found one article which refers to socio-demographic backgrounds in nursing educators in an Egyptian University – so a very specific research group! It looks at correlation between IP and Perfectionism, but that doesn’t necessarily imply causation.

Sonnak & Towell (2001) looked at British university students and the relationship between socioeconomic status and IP. They found that participants who had been to private school reported lower on IP.

 

  • How can this topic be raised sensitively with your manager without coming across as incompetent?

I guess there’s a question back first, which is: why do you want to raise it with your manager? Are you looking for their support/reassurance? For them to give you specific feedback to help you combat IP with external evidence? Or for something else…? Before you do raise it with them, my suggestion would be to know why you want to do so. I know of many people who have raised it with their manager and found their manager to be open and helpful by explaining their own IP feelings!  Research also indicates that a supportive manager helps to combat the feelings.

You’re not telling them that you can’t do your job, or that you are incompetent, what you’re telling them is that you sometimes feel like an imposter despite the external evidence of success.  Maybe a starting point for the conversation is the talk I gave, with a mention something along the lines of… “I was listening to the LIA talk on the Imposter Phenomenon and it set me thinking about how I sometimes feel at work…”

 

  • Is there any correlation between imposter syndrome (phenomenon) and introversion?

Yes, see below where I discuss the Five Factor Model which measures Extraversion. It wasn’t a huge correlation, but was statistically significant. There will be many extroverts (including me) who experience IP too.

For understanding Introversion thinking in more depth, Susan Cain’s book Quiet is a really interesting read.

 

 

We are still at an early stage in understanding the impact of the Imposter Phenomenon and my interest is in understanding the most effective ways of managing those imposter feelings, in particular in the workplace and passing on this information to others.

Here’s a link to the research on IP in the workplace by TotalJobs in 2019 which mentions what managers/employers can do to support their staff, conducted in collaboration with yours truly and my PhD supervisor Dr Terri Simpkin: TotalJobs Survey, and the more recent 2020 research to explore the impact of working from home and the first lockdown during the Covid pandemic can be found here.

In addition, here’s an interesting blog on the importance of allyship at work . Being an ally could help reduce another person’s feelings of imposterism.

 
Further notes on other research linked to IP:
Personality Types

I am often asked about “types of people” who experience the phenomenon.  As I mentioned during the presentation, it can affect anyone who feels as if they don’t belong, or when they look around they feel ‘other’.

So while there is no set “type”, there is some research which explores the links between the imposter phenomenon and personality types, specifically the Five Factor Model: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. Two factors report significant finding in research; IP has been negatively related to Extraversion (Chae et al., 1995) and a greater level of consistency has been found in the relationship with Neuroticism, where IP has been found to be positively associated (Ross et al., 2001, Bernard et al., 2002, Vergauwe et al., 2015). IP has also been found to be negatively associated to Conscientiousness (Chrisman, 1995, Chae et al., 1995, Bernard et al., 2002, Vergauwe et al., 2015), with ‘imposters’ low in two facets in particular: competence (Vergauwe et al., 2015) and self-discipline (Bernard et al., 2002).

Career Development

A paper published by Austrian researchers Neureiter and Traut-Mattausch (2016 & 2017) indicates that experiencing IP can hinder career planning.  They suggest that this could be due to a fear of failure. As mentioned during my talk, failure can be wrongly interpreted as “I am a failure”, so to avoid the risk of failure individuals might avoid applying for a promotion.

Perceived Organisational Support

Researchers in America noted that if an individual perceives that their organisation is supportive of them, values their contributions and is concerned for their well-being, then IP feelings are lessened (McDowell et al 2015). Conversely, if the perception is negative, imposter feelings are heightened.

Loneliness and Compassion Fatigue

Another researcher in Israel has found links between imposter feelings and levels of loneliness at executive level in the workplace (Kuna 2019). Kuna describes “the intense experience of having fooled others into an overestimation of one’s ability—in this case, managerial competence—and the anxiety of being exposed as an executive fraud”. Kuna also notes that “the attribution of one’s success to factors other than intelligence or ability, did not surface in the participants’ narratives”. Loneliness is associated with high levels of anxiety and social alienation (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1999), which can partly explain the link with IP.  Clark’s (2021) research with mental health workers observed that IP was positively associated with compassion fatigue and burnout, regardless of age and years of work.

 
Other Useful Links

Strength Questionnaires
https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey
https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/
https://www.strengthsprofile.com/
https://www.strengthscope.com/

TED Talks & YouTube Links

Amy Cuddy TED Talk on Body Language
Christine Porath TED Talk on Incivility
Susan Cain TED Talk on The Power of the Introvert
Viola Davis behind the scenes Oscar interview
Inga Beale on R4 Desert Island Discs

 
Other reading, books and references

What to say when you talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter
The Impostor Phenomenon by Dr Pauline Rose Clance
Harvard Business Review Article: Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome
The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar
Inferior by Angela Saini
The Gift of Imperfection by Brene Brown
The Confident Manager by Kate Atkin
Quiet by Susan Cain

With best wishes

Kate