Tackling Imposter Syndrome Through Diversity and Inclusion

In this episode of Inclusive Growth I spoke to Lea Sellers and Ros Adler the co-founders of Confidence People and experts on impostor syndrome, which affects a lot of people.

My guests on this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show were Lea Sellers and Ros Adler who are experts in imposter syndrome.  They are co-founders of Confidence People. Their services include public speaking training, media training, and confident communications, as well as talking about the impostor syndrome, which affects a lot of people.

Lea’s background is as a television producer. She has worked on programmes like Channel 4 News, Question Time and Newsnight. Ros is an actress and communication skills trainer. Their paths crossed socially as they lived in the same area of West London. At the time, Ros was doing a lot of public speaking training and Lea was delivering media training. They found their skills dovetailed well, and started working together nearly 12 years ago.

I was particularly interested to discuss how senior leaders might be experiencing impostor syndrome when talking about diversity and inclusion. To get started, I was keen to establish what impostor syndrome is.

‘We have done a lot of research on it, of course,’ said Ros. ‘One of the best definitions we found comes from somebody called Dr. Denise Cummins. She is an American research psychologist. I’m going to quote her directly, “The telltale sign of impostor syndrome is a disconnect between perceived and actual performance. Impostors have ample objective evidence they are doing well, they’ve got good performance reports, promotion history, grades, etcetera, yet they feel that somehow they’ve been faking it or skating along on thin ice, any minute now they’re going to be unmasked and revealed to be a fraud.”

The key here is Dr. Cummins’ word “disconnect”. So in a nutshell, it’s a feeling that other people have got it wrong, they’ve got an inflated idea of your talents. It’s a fear that your true lack of abilities is about to be rumbled and a tendency to attribute success solely to external factors like luck. Most of us have bouts of impostor syndrome in various situations and at different times in our lives. Starting a new job would be a classic example. It affects men as much as women. People used to think it was just a women thing and it really isn’t. It typically affects high achievers.’

I think having heard that definition, I’ve certainly experienced impostor syndrome in the past. I asked Lea what the characteristics of impostor syndrome are and what we need to be looking out for?

‘There are a lot of manifestations of impostor syndrome. Sometimes it can look like its opposite: overconfidence. As we know, that isn’t real confidence. It’s often insecurity veiled in bravado. We’ve all seen that in people, even when we’re at school, teachers, bosses, whatever, we’ve seen it. Other manifestations of impostor syndrome might be keeping a low profile, keeping your head down in the hope that your hard work will be noticed. It’s called The Tiara Syndrome, interestingly.

Also being quiet in meetings, being unwilling to speak up unless you’re 100% sure you’re right. Maybe fear of voicing your own thoughts while pretending to agree with others. In other words, people-pleasing. Not celebrating success because it feels like bragging. Being dismissive of your own expertise, “Oh, anybody could do it,” is false modesty. Or the opposite, you get low-effort syndrome as it’s called, making an effort would make you vulnerable, so it’s better to be thought lazy rather than stupid. There’s another thing, which actually applies more to men than women, procrastination. That can be a built-in excuse for disappointment. “Well, I left it to the last minute, so no wonder it didn’t work.” Another thing is being risk-averse, not putting yourself forward for opportunities or promotions. And finally, constantly comparing yourself with others.’

Ros added, ‘On that note, people can feel like outsiders or impostors when they feel they are not included. They feel they don’t fit into the prevalent culture or aren’t welcome there, because they’re a different gender, younger or older than most of the other people there, a different sexual orientation. They may have a disability or a learning difficulty, or they might feel they have the “wrong” educational background. They’re from a different culture, a different ethnic background or class. Fundamentally, impostor syndrome comes from a fear of failure, an expectation of failure or insurance against failure.’

Lea continued, ‘Allied to this is the idea of self-doubt to be a recognition of humility. But some self-doubt is actually a strength, and it does stop confidence tipping over into arrogance. So self-doubt is essential because it frees you from the unrealistic burden of being right all the time or having all the answers. Nobody has all the answers all the time. It’s also worth examining where your expectations of yourself come from. What’s your idea of success? How much of it is influenced by family, or your peers, or your background?’

As there’s such a broad spectrum of experiencing impostor syndrome I asked Ros if there is a simple way that we can identify when we’re struggling with impostor syndrome ourselves. Is there a shortcut to putting our finger on that feeling?

‘I think the best answer is that feeling that we all know about, at least sometimes. The feeling of not being good enough. It applies to the person who’s keeping quiet in meetings and the person who’s hiding their vulnerability under a load of peacocking. It feels like being frightened that you’re not good enough.’

I like how simple that concept of “I’m not enough” is to understand. From a diversity and inclusion perspective, we can link that back to the beliefs that we develop, particularly if we’re from a minority group. For instance, LGBT individuals grow up in a world that’s been designed for straight people. I grew up as a disabled person in a world that’s been designed by non-disabled people and I had to navigate that. So, I can understand how imposter syndrome links to those deep-seated belief mechanisms.

I asked Ros, ‘So, once you’ve identified it in yourself, what can you do to then help yourself overcome I suppose the effects of impostor syndrome?’

‘I do think it’s important for senior leadership to look out for those signs in people around them, in their staff because impostor syndrome is a massive drain. It affects the individual who is hiding themselves and struggling all the time to be something they’re not. It’s also a huge drain on organisations because it leads to risk avoidance and missed opportunities. A huge amount of talent, just wasted. I think the big one for me that really pings up is if people don’t dare speak up in meetings, meaning good ideas are not being voiced. But I’ll leave it to Lea to talk about the first steps to overcoming it.’

Lea continued. ‘Well, one of the most important things is talking about it so it becomes self-awareness by noticing if any of those characteristics ring a bell. Maybe this will resonate with 95% of the population at some point in their lives, even if it’s going to a new school. The next step is being willing to entertain other perspectives, so listen to other people, because it’s possible other people’s good opinion of you is justified. You can then re-evaluate what it is you bring to the table.

I want to tell you one example of a consultant obstetrician who had a 360-degree appraisal, which is what they have in the NHS, where everybody you work with gives you a score. That could be from midwives, social workers, doctors, whatever. This person got a very high score from absolutely everybody, except for one person, and guess who that was? It was herself, because she could not accept that other people thought she was wonderful, and she couldn’t believe it.

So, sometimes it’s just thinking, what have your colleagues said to you? Have they sent you a little praise email? Have they said a word to you in their corridor? Those are all reinforcing things that say, “Yes, I am worthwhile, I am contributing.”

And on recognising impostor syndrome in someone else, if a member of the leadership team does notice that somebody is not contributing, hiding their talents, then the number one step is to talk to them. Consider mentoring, Maybe offer them training and give them opportunities you haven’t before.’

My next question centred on what we can do on the peer-to-peer level. Is there anything we can do to be an ally for colleagues?

Ros suggested having a coffee with them. ‘Draw them out about an idea that you know they had and haven’t spoken up about. Get them to understand that that’s a good idea and think about where to bring it up. Encourage each other. Rather than assuming people don’t have much to offer, assume they have an awful lot to offer. You might be wrong sometimes, but a lot of the time you’ll be right.’

I also wanted to talk to Ros and Lea about the C-suite because I had a conversation with a client not long ago. It was during LGBT Month, and we were talking about some challenges that LGBT staff were facing in their business. During the meeting, he went very quiet until he said to me, “Of course, I absolutely believe in diversity and inclusion, and that it’s important for my business, but who am I as a straight man to talk about LGBT issues?”

We had a really productive conversation. I advised him that as a senior leader in the business, he is the custodian of the culture and he needs to be walking the talk on diversity and inclusion. He also needed to lean into his vulnerabilities and have some difficult conversations that might feel awkward to him about topics that he’s not familiar with. He was suffering from impostor syndrome on this. I asked Lea and Ros for their thoughts on the effects of impostor syndrome when it comes to creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces?

Ros highlighted that we all have more in common than we have that divides us. In the case of my example, ‘What he has that gives him the absolute right and necessity to talk to somebody who is perceived to be in a different group to him, is that he’s a human being. As are we all and that is a uniting factor.

In your book Toby, ‘Inclusive Growth’, you quote Ben Brown formerly of Intuit and you say that you only find out what you need to know by asking people about the problem. It is incredibly simple, but it’s so important. Everybody has the right to find out about each other because the flip side of that is assuming that you are supposed to have all the answers. I really do think that for a lot of people that’s the feeling people get trapped in – that they need to know it all when you don’t. That leads to the other feeling associated with high achievers and imposter syndrome which is that the higher and more senior your job title, the further it is to fall if you “mess up”. It’s a perception that there’s more to lose the higher you go, the drop is deeper.

Being willing to learn from others is a great sign of strength. It’s this alpha male idea that you have to know it all and “Be big and strong. Yeah, I’ve done that, I can do that.” You don’t. Admitting some vulnerability just makes you join the human race, which we all are a part of. And you don’t have to be perfect or all-powerful, and if you believe you have to be, that’s quite creepy.’

Lea picked up the theme. ‘We went to one big city financial services company and gave a talk on imposter syndrome once. And when we finished, we invited questions. The first person to stand up was a managing director, and he said he’d experienced imposter syndrome. Now, admitting a little bit of vulnerability like that gave the green light for others to open up and speak. It was a moment of tremendous strength, as we’ve said, to admit it. Far worse to say, “Well, of course, I don’t have it, but you junior people might.” It’s just not the case.’

Before the interview concluded I posed my customary question to both Lea and Ros, to find out what inclusive growth means to them.

Ros said that for her ‘inclusive growth means feeling at home and respected so you can be your best and do your best. We were listening to the podcast you did with Emma Codd of Deloitte, when she said, needing to love where you work. That does it for me.’

For Lea, she referred back to her time at Channel 4 News. ‘They’ve always been ahead of the curve. It’s not who you see on screen, I’m talking about the people who work behind the scenes. They’ve been very, very good on diversity and inclusion, but you should never stop championing the cause. You need to look out for opportunities to improve things. I used to work with a wheelchair user who was an editor. He had access to everything, but he said when we worked on the lower ground floor “If there’s a fire and they close down the lifts, how do you get me out?” He had to challenge them on that. And for that kind of thing, you need support. He shouldn’t be just fighting that battle on his own.

I also want to say that diversity and inclusion is not just about gender, ethnicity, or disability, but also socio-economic and educational background. And neurodiversity – people who may have learning difficulties such as dyslexia. It’s a question of emphasising people’s strengths not focusing on their weaknesses. Inclusive growth means never stop trying and involve everybody in an organisation.’

So if you feel imposter syndrome is holding you back or stopping you from contributing, Ros and Lea are there to help. Visit theconfidencepeople.com to read about their work, what previous clients have said and to get in touch.

Tackling Imposter Syndrome Through Diversity and Inclusion - Mildon