Impostor is one of the main phenomenons associated with women in leadership (surprisingly it is just as relevant for men). It describes the belief that others overestimate your competence aka self doubt.
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Sheryl Sandberg has it. Serena Williams has it. And so has Tom Hanks, too. Chances are you have done it, too: Doubted yourself. Maybe you're not actually qualified for this job? Maybe you shouldn't be here? This is impostor syndrome.
We've all been there. You're sitting in a meeting, and you suddenly feel like everyone is looking at you. As if they had suddenly found out that you don't belong - that you are a fraud. “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself -- or even excelled -- I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.” Sheryl Sandberg, the former COO at Meta, talks about impostor several times in her book "Lean in".
And while the phenomenon is widely associated with women, men are just as prone to impostor, too. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, once shared in an interview for The New York Times: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”
It is true, and it is more common than you would think. Impostor is something a lot of us dread. But it doesn't need that impostor is inherently harmful. In fact, struggling with impostor syndrome can actually be a good thing. Here are 3 surprising benefits of impostor and why it should be embraced rather than feared - especially in the modern workplace.
Increases empathy & makes better relationships
"Impostor thoughts make you more "other oriented" - more attuned to other people's perceptions and feelings - which makes you more likable." says Basima A. Tewfik, Assistant Professor at MIT Sloan. While she couldn't find evidence that impostor had a negative effect on performance, she found it correlated with higher empathy skills and as a result in higher sympathy scores in many cases.
Her research shows that "experiencing the phenomenon can make you more adept to relationships, which is key for career success." This was particularly evident in how doctors with impostor handled sensitive interactions with patients better and received better ratings. Given the importance of people skills, especially empathy, in the diverse workplace, people with impostor can actually be prone to excelling in new leadership roles.
Improves diligence & performance as a result
People who doubt themselves, are more likely to try to improve. In one of her studies, Professor Tewfik found out that job candidates with higher level of self-doubt asked more questions during the pre-interviews which helped them prepare better.
Similarly, people with impostor tend to work harder and are more diligent as they want to avoid being "found out" as a fraud. They also often ask for feedback more frequently in order to improve. Asking for feedback can be difficult, but it's one of the most important things you can do if you want to continuously develop both professionally.
Cultivating good habits over time can so bring your best work. In fact, many successful people have spoken about how impostor fuelled their growth and helped them achieve excellence in their fields. "Doubt breeds creativity, which is essential for innovation", says Dr. Valerie Young, author of "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It".
Strengthens resilience & mental health
Impostor syndrome can help mental resilience. "Embracing impostor syndrome can actually make you more resilient in the face of setbacks and criticism." says Tewfik. "It allows you to take risks, because you're less afraid of failure. And it makes you more open to feedback, which is essential for learning and growth." If you're able to recover from your doubts and keep going, it also means that you're training your mental strength developing the capability to deal with challenges.
Tewfik's research also found that people with impostor were more likely to experience what she calls "post-traumatic growth" after a failure. This is the idea that we can emerge from difficult experiences not just unbroken, but stronger. This is an important quality in the workplace, where things are constantly changing and you need to be able to adapt.
Better people skills, better performance, and resilience are just some of the surprising benefits that can emerge from self-doubt. In the volatile, uncertain, ambivalent, and complex future of work, as I find, a very healthy attitude.
The belief that others overestimate your competence is without a doubt dreadful. But learning to catch it and transform it into a hidden superpower can be hugely rewarding. Extremely successful professionals like Albert Einstein or even Lady Gaga have admitted to have struggled with feelings of self-doubt. And while doubt can be a paralyzing phenomenon, fighting it can be more than rewarding. Sometimes with just as little as more attention towards relationships, asking more questions, and preparing better for meetings.
So the next time you're feeling like an impostor, remember that it's not a bad thing. Embrace it, and use it to your advantage. It might just be the thing that takes you to the next level in your career. Instead of doubt, do.
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