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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.

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello, and thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I’m Toby Mildon. And today, I’m joined by two amazing guests, Lea Sellers and Ros Adler. And I met Lea and Ros when I was working at the Deloitte. They came into the firm to run a workshop for us on the impostor syndrome, and I thought it’d be great to get them both on the show, because I would like to explore with them what exactly impostor syndrome is, and how can we spot it in ourselves, and how can we help ourselves, but also how we can help other people who might be experiencing impostor syndrome.

Toby Mildon: But because this is a show about diversity and inclusion, I’m particularly interested in how senior leaders might be experiencing impostor syndrome in talking about diversity and inclusion matters that might hold them back on advancing the diversity and inclusion agenda within their business. So, I’m gonna go to Lea first. And Lea, can you just let us know a bit more about yourself and your background and what led you to this point in your career?

Lea Sellers: Yes, indeed. I’m Lea Sellers, and my background is as a television producer, so I worked on programs like Channel 4 News, Question Time, Newsnight, and then I started doing media training. And now with Ros, I’m co-founder of the Confidence People, and we do public speaking training, media training, and confident communications, as well as talking about the impostor syndrome, which affects a lot of people.

Toby Mildon: Okay. I think when we first met, that was kind of how we connected as well, ’cause I used to work in the media myself at the BBC, so we’ve got that in common.

Lea Sellers: That’s right, we do, indeed.

Toby Mildon: And Ros, how about yourself? What’s your background? And how did you get into this job?

Ros Adler: I’m an actress and also a communication skills trainer. And Lea and I started working together. We formed The Confidence People, that’s our name. We knew each other socially because we both live in the same area of West London, and I was doing a lot of public speaking training, and, of course, Lea was doing media training, and we found that our skills dovetailed very well, and we started working together, and have been doing that now for, gosh, nearly 12 years.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. So, something that you both talk about very often and you help your clients with is impostor syndrome. Let’s just go back to basics for a minute. What exactly is impostor syndrome?

Ros Adler: Okay. Well, we have done a lot of research on it, of course, and 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.”

Ros Adler: So, the key there 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, 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 various times of our lives. For example, starting a new job would be a classic example. And we did want to say that importantly it does affect men as much as women. People used to think it was just a women thing. It really, really isn’t, and it typically affects high achievers.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. I think having heard that definition, I’ve certainly been experiencing impostor syndrome in the past. And what are the characteristics of impostor syndrome? What do we need to be looking out for?

Lea Sellers: Well, there are a lot of manifestations of impostor syndromes. Sometimes it can look like it’s opposite: Overconfidence. But overconfidence, as we know, isn’t real confidence. It’s often insecurity veiled in bravado, and we’ve all seen that in people, even when we’re at school, teachers, bosses, whatever, we’ve seen it. But there are other manifestations of impostor syndrome, like 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.

Lea Sellers: A fear maybe 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,” sort of a full modesty there. 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. Then there’s another thing, which actually applies more to men than women, procrastination, and 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 Adler: And on that note, people can feel like outsiders or impostors when they feel they are not included, that they don’t fit into the prevalent culture or aren’t welcome there, because they’re a different gender, maybe they’re younger or older than most of the other people there, or they’ve got a different sexual orientation, or 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. So, fundamentally, impostor syndrome comes from a fear of failure, or even better to say, an expectation of failure or an insurance against failure.

Lea Sellers: Yeah. Allied to this is the idea of self-doubt to be a recognition of humility, realizing that some self-doubt is actually a strength, and it does stop confidence tipping over into arrogance, if you like. Some 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? And how much of it is influenced by family, or your peers, or your background?

Toby Mildon: It sounds like there’s quite a broad spectrum of experiencing impostor syndrome, ’cause you were saying on one extreme you could have somebody who’s very… Appears very confident, but then you’ve also said that you might come across somebody who doesn’t speak up in a meeting, so is there kind of a simple way that we can identify when we’re struggling with impostor syndrome ourself? Is there kind of an easy way of putting our finger on that? [chuckle]

Ros Adler: I think the best answer to that is that feeling that we all know about, at least sometimes, the feeling of not being good enough. So that will apply to the person who’s keeping quiet in meetings, that will also apply to the person who’s hiding their vulnerability under a load of peacocking, however you like to describe it. Not being good enough, being frightened you’re not good enough.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I really like that, ’cause that’s simple to understand. It’s, “I’m not enough.” And from a diversity and inclusion perspective, we can link that back to the beliefs that we develop if, particularly if we’re from a minority group. For instance, LGBT individuals grow up in the 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 having to navigate that. So, I can understand how it links to those kind of deep-seated belief mechanisms. So, once you’ve identified it in yourself, what can you do to then help yourself overcome I suppose the effects of impostor syndrome?

Ros Adler: Well, you can see obviously if any of those characteristics or manifestations resonate with you, but can I just say it’s really important for senior leadership to look out for those signs in people around them, in their staff.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Ros Adler: Because impostor syndrome is a massive drain, not just on the individual who is hiding themselves and they’re struggling all the time to be something they’re not, but it’s a huge drain on organizations because what it leads to is risk avoidance, missed opportunities, and therefore, a huge amount of talent wasted. I think the big one for me that really pings up is if people who don’t dare speak up in meetings, ’cause for all you know really good ideas are not being voiced. But I’ll leave it to Lea to talk about first steps to overcoming it.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. And what you’re saying really links to inclusion because we talk about… So, in order for businesses to be inclusive, they need to create psychological safety, so that people feel confident to be able to speak up, share ideas, speak out when they see something that’s not right. And creating a culture of inclusion is all about empowering people, helping people progress within the business, creating a respectful environment, and a culture where people feel like they belong. And you were saying earlier it’s like one of the effects of impostor syndrome is that you don’t feel like you fit in or you don’t belong in a particular team. And it always reminds me of those interviews where managers quite often rationalize their recruitment decisions by saying somebody’s not a culture fit for the team, and if an organization really does believe in the power of diversity, then we need culture contributors and culture-added people, not people that just simply fit in ’cause you’re just hiring clones otherwise.

Lea Sellers: Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right. We have to change the world, Toby. But it is getting a bit more that way, that people realize that everybody on a board cannot be called David. You need different people. You can’t just have people who look and sound like you.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. So, how can we help ourselves? Now that we’ve identified we’re suffering from impostor syndrome, what can we do to help ourselves?

Lea Sellers: Well, one of the most important things is talking about it so it becomes awareness, self-awareness, recognizing it in yourself, noticing if any of those characteristics ring a bell. And I think with sort of 95% of the population, something will ring a bell at some point in their lives, even if it’s going to a new school. And if anything does resonate, then the next step is being willing to entertain other perspectives, so listen to other people, ’cause it’s possible other people’s good opinion of you is justified, and you can then re-evaluate what it is you bring to the table. Why did they hire you in the first place? 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 appraises you and gives you a score. So that could be midwives, social workers, doctors, whatever. And this one 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.

Lea Sellers: And so, it’s sometimes 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.” But just on recognizing 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, guess what? To talk to them, to consider mentoring, to maybe offer them training and giving them opportunities that maybe you haven’t thought about before.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. And ’cause you’ve mentioned senior leaders a couple of times and their role in this, but is there anything that we can do on a kind of peer-to-peer level? Somebody that you might be… In the same role as you, the same level in the organization as you. What can you do to be an ally for your colleagues?

Ros Adler: I think to be encouraging of them and perhaps draw them out. If they’re not gonna speak up in a meeting, well, maybe have a coffee with them and draw them out about an idea that you know they had and they just haven’t spoken up about it. And then get them to understand that that’s a really good idea and to bring it up somewhere else, so I think they’ll… Just encourage each other and be welcoming to each other. And assume, 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’re gonna be right. And as Lea said, people are hiding their talents because they’re frightened that their ideas aren’t good enough.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah.

Lea Sellers: But I think I want you, as I said, Toby, about senior leaders talking to each other. I think everybody in the C-Suite, as they now call it, whether they’re chief technology officers, COOs, CEOs, they all need to be across this at every single level. And if it’s a CTO, how can technology help people? So, it does apply to everybody.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. And I wanted to talk to you about the C-suites 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. And in the meeting he went very quiet. And then he said to me, he said, “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?” Because he didn’t live and breathe being a gay man on a day-to-day basis and he wasn’t that aware of LGBT issues. And we had a really productive conversation, because I said to 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. And he also needs to lean into his vulnerabilities and have some difficult conversations that might feel awkward to him about topics that he’s not familiar with. And he really was suffering from impostor syndrome on this. So, what are your thoughts about impostor syndrome when it does come to creating more diverse and inclusive work places?

Ros Adler: Well, I think in response to what you just said about that man, we all have more in common than we have that divides us, so what he has that gives him the absolute right and in fact the necessity to talk to somebody who is perceived to be in a different group to him, he’s a human being. [chuckle] As are we all, and that is a uniting factor. So, you say, you quote in your book, inclusive growth, Toby, you quote Ben Brown formerly of Intuit, 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. And everybody has the right to find out 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 is the very feeling people get trapped in, that they need to know it all, and you don’t. And that leads into the other feeling associated with high achievers and imposter syndrome, is the higher, the more senior your job title, for example, the further it is to fall if you “mess up”, so there’s more to lose the higher you go, the drop is deeper.

Ros Adler: So, I just think, as you said, being willing to learn from others is a great sign of strength. It’s this all alpha male idea that you have to know it all and you know, “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 all have to be, that’s quite creepy.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Lea Sellers: We went to one big city financial services company and gave a talk on imposter syndrome once. And when we finished, we invited questions. And the first person to stand up was the managing director or 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 speak up and open up. And it was a tremendous strength, as we’ve said, to admit it that you don’t have to say, “Well, of course, I don’t have it, but you junior people might do.” It’s not the case.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So, this is, of course, The Inclusive Growth Show, and I’m interested in hearing from you what inclusive growth means for you.

Ros Adler: Well, for me, Ros, inclusive growth means to me feeling at home and respected so you can be your best and do your best. And we were listening to the podcast you did with Emma Codd of Deloitte, when she said, needing to love where you work.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely.

Ros Adler: Yeah, that does it for me.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Thank you. And Lea?

Lea Sellers: Well, I used to work at Channel 4 News, as I said, and 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. And they’ve been very, very good on diversity and inclusion, but you should never stop championing the cause, that’s for sure. And you need to look out for opportunities to improve things. I mean, I used to work with a wheelchair user who was an editor. And yes, he had access to everything, but he said, we worked on the lower ground floor at that big ITN building, and he said, “If there’s a fire and they close down the lifts, how do you get me out?”

Lea Sellers: And he had to challenge them on that. And for that kind of thing, you need support. He shouldn’t be just fighting his battle on his own. And the other thing I want to say is that diversity and inclusion is not just about gender and ethnicity, disability, but also socio-economic and educational background. And neuro-diversity; people who may have learning difficulties such as dyslexia. People tend to say, “Well, they can’t write, they can’t spell.” Actually, funnily enough in television, that doesn’t matter, ’cause you speak it and somebody else will correct it.

Lea Sellers: But interestingly, in our graphics department, which was extremely good, they would make pictures out of ideas and words, which I found so gratifying ’cause I’m a words person, not a visual person. But I always had to check any words they put on the screen, because a lot of them were dyslexic. They happened to be extremely strong at graphics and not very good at writing, but the two of us together made the perfect graphic. So, it’s a question of emphasizing people’s strengths not focusing on their weaknesses. And inclusive growth means never stop trying and involves everybody in an organization.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, Lea and Ros, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode. Before we go, if the person listening to our chat today wants to get in touch with you than more about impostor syndrome and the work that you do, what should they do?

Ros Adler: They should go to theconfidencepeople.com, and there they can see, they can see what we do, that they can look at what we say in various articles we’ve written over the years, they can see what people say about us, and they can see how to get in touch.

Lea Sellers: And in our training, we help people communicate with confidence by overcoming nerves and self-doubt so they speak from the heart. And we do encourage people to be the best they can be, and therefore, they can contribute more to their organization because their voice will be heard.

Ros Adler: So, if you feel, if you feel imposter syndrome is holding you back and stopping you from contributing, we are here to help.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And obviously, having worked with you in the past, I can definitely recommend that people should get in touch with you. Thank you, Lea. Thank you, Ros, ever so much for joining me on today’s show. And thank you for tuning in and listening to Lea, Ros, and myself chatting about imposter syndrome and how that links to diversity and inclusion. Look out for the next episode which will be coming up shortly. Until then, thanks ever so much and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day. Thank you.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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