How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome

author and executive coach Kelli Thompson
c/o Kelli Thompson
Even the most successful, especially women, can be stymied by feelings of doubt. Here’s how to get beyond that: ‘Confidence is a side effect of taking action.’

Author and executive coach Kelli Thompson has spent two decades leading teams in primarily male-dominated industries, and one of the most consistent themes she’s encountered in her work is the pervasive issue of self-doubt.

“Even top executives like Indra Nooyi struggle with this,” says Thompson. When she interviewed the former chairman and CEO of Pepsico and asked her if she’d ever been fearful taking on new positions in new industries, Nooyi told her, “Oh yeah. Every day. But you have to learn how to do these things while also feeling fearful.”

Thompson, whose book Closing the Confidence Gap focuses on how to do just that, will be a featured speaker at our next Women in Leadership online session, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, on June 20 (join us!). She spoke with us recently about how lack of confidence holds us back, hampers innovation—and what can be done about it.

Let’s talk about “imposter syndrome.” It’s a term used everywhere these days, and I think that speaks to how common it is, especially for women. Why do you think it’s getting so much attention?

Well, you’re right, the term is becoming more popular, but it was actually coined in the 1970s, I believe it was 1978, by [psychologists] Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They wanted to understand, why do these high-achieving women who have all these degrees, who’ve made it to these senior level decision-making rooms feel like they’re going to be found out, or all their success is a result of luck, or they’re in that room and they don’t belong there. They called it “the imposter phenomenon.”

I always tell folks when we talk about imposter phenomenon, which we now call imposter syndrome, remember that in 1978, women had just gotten the ability to have a bank account or a credit card in their own name. Four years earlier, women were not in the rooms where decisions were made. That was an anomaly.

And so this is a very real feeling. And it’s not just women. Research shows that people of color, when they’ve experienced racial discrimination, experience more imposter feelings, people who work in high performance, cutthroat cultures, a lot of folks who work in education where brilliance is priced above all else, have higher rates of imposter feelings. I’ve felt it, that sense that people are going to find out that I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Imposter syndrome is caused by not seeing yourself in the rooms where decisions are made. And I do believe that organizations have a responsibility to have more diverse leadership teams because it does create feelings of belonging.

How do we move beyond that doubt?

One critical question is, are we reframing our everyday feelings of doubt as imposter feelings?

Because here’s the thing: Doubt is a normal, healthy human emotion. You’re going to feel doubt every time you stretch your comfort zone. It’s just science. There are people in this world who don’t feel doubt. They’re sociopaths.

Imposter feelings are real. I’m not going to minimize them. Yes, organizations have a responsibility to bring more diversity so we can see ourselves in the rooms where decisions are made. However, let’s not reframe normal, healthy, everyday doubt into imposter feelings because you will feel doubt every time you stretch your comfort zone and move closer to your goals. Healthy doubt keeps us curious. It keeps us humble and it keeps us connected to our audience. We can do great things while also feeling those uncomfortable, nervous feelings of doubt.

So on a certain level it’s about pushing through and recognizing the positives: It can make us pay more attention. It’s a way to practice being brave, which has all sorts of repercussions in your life and your work. What can organizations do to help in this area? Why should companies care?

When I’m working with leaders, a question I love to ask them is this, what would your team be capable of if they didn’t allow doubt to hold them back? What would your team be capable of if they weren’t sitting in meetings going, oh, I need to speak up and say something but first I need more qualifications, first I need to make sure nobody will think my idea is silly. But first, but first, but first.

These doubtful thoughts are expensive. They’re expensive to our peace, our potential and our paycheck. They’re costly to organizations because we don’t speak up and have the crucial conversations that could resolve an issue. So things fester. And so it’s expensive in terms of engagement or collaboration. It’s expensive to an organization’s potential. Because when we aren’t sharing our ideas because we have too much doubt, we aren’t putting innovative ideas out into the world.

You’re just not creating an innovative culture. It’s tied, isn’t it, to how important it is to allow people to fail. To create a culture where people are willing to take chances.

Absolutely. Some of the most innovative organizations I work for have a very, very healthy relationship with failure. They’re very cautious about how they define failure. Failure is not, trying something and it didn’t work as planned. Failure is, we lost our best customer.

One of the things that I work on a lot with my leaders is, how can we encourage failure in low-stakes environments? Because when people are trying something new and they’re doing it all weird and awkward, they’re going to make mistakes. You should hope for it. You should plan for it. But how are we making it safe for people to make mistakes when the stakes are low? That way when they get a lot of reps under their belt, when the stakes are higher, they’re not coming in for the first time making a really high-impact mistake that might lead to a more costly failure.

I’ve seen data that shows even women at the very highest levels of business, government, whatever, feel imposter syndrome or doubt pretty routinely—however much “practice” they’ve had. What does that tell you?

Yes. It tells me that it’s normal and there’s hope for all of us. I interviewed Indra Nooyi, the former chairman and CEO of Pepsico, and she was talking about how she jumped from Motorola. She was in consulting, and then she went to Motorola, and then Pepsi—across industries. At Pepsi, they kept shifting her roles and moving her up in the organization. And I asked her, were you just so scared all the time? She’s like, “Oh yeah. Every day. But you have to learn how to do these things while also feeling fearful.”

Barbara Corcoran’s talked about it. I’ve interviewed Arianna Huffington and she’s talked about it. When they’re doing things that are stretching their comfort zone, big things that they’ve never done before, they seem to have this really healthy relationship with doubt. So one of the things I often remind folks is that it’s not that like these great leaders that we think are just so unflappable never feel doubt. It’s that they’ve changed their relationship with doubt.

You want to recognize that it’s there and kind of carry it in your pocket. It’s going to keep you curious, inquisitive and connected to making the right decisions. It’s like a tool.

It can be a way to know when something’s important. If it’s scary, it probably really matters.

Yes. It can prompt you to get feedback. It can keep you from becoming arrogant.

So what are the steps to getting “comfortable” with doubt and overcoming imposter syndrome?

The first thing that I tell people is just to notice it with a ton of compassion. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to criticize myself into more confidence. And I try really hard. Because we notice the doubt, we notice the imposter feelings. My clients feel it. And what do we do? We’re like, stop it. Don’t feel that way. Get your stuff together. That level of criticism is not going to help.

So notice that feeling with a ton of compassion and just name it. Say, I’m feeling nervous, I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m feeling insignificant. I’m feeling worried, I’m feeling anxious. It doesn’t give the doubt power. It actually creates a lot of emotional clarity and helps us feel back in control of what’s happening. Then I tell folks just to normalize it, this is normal. Of course you feel nervous.

You’re not the only one to feel this way.

Yes. You’re going to speak in front of a thousand people? Of course you’re nervous. You’re going to be interviewed? Of course you’re nervous.

So we notice it, we name it, we normalize it—and then we can reframe it. Say, you know what? This is what it feels like to stretch my comfort zone. This was my goal one year ago and I’m here now. I knew this discomfort would come, because this feels new. I’m nervous because I care about doing great work.

Then take action on it. You can do the next thing while also feeling nervous. That’s my big thing. You can speak while also feeling nervous. You can lead while also feeling a little bit unsure.

And it does get easier with practice, right?

Absolutely. It’s like a muscle that’s built with practice.

But of course there’s only so much that can be done internally. How about external causes and challenges?

To close the confidence gap, yes, there are some things that we as women can do. However, there are some structures and some systems in place that are also creating those pressures. So how do we learn to thrive in spite of the systems?

For example, men have an easier job advocating for themselves than women, even though women tend to outperform them on standardized tests. Some things that we can do is to go back and look at the evidence. Look at the evidence of your past success. Look at your resume. Look at all the things that you’ve brought to work. Keep a smile file full of customer compliments. Really using that evidence can help.

All too often we put folks on a pedestal because they have a higher title than us, they’ve been around longer than us, sometimes they’re the organization’s charismatic leader. We need to stop overestimating others’ intelligence and underestimating our own.

We can do that by really owning those unique gifts that only you can bring to a situation, that unique point of view that comes from your seat. So focus on the facts, pull down the pedestal and really own your point of view.

And the last thing that I tell folks is, often doubt and imposter feelings come when we sit. Confidence is a side effect of taking action. The actions of confidence come first; the feelings come second. And so one of the great ways to build your internal sense of confidence is just to take your smallest, bravest next step.

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