Imposter syndrome (IS), a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their abilities, accomplishments, and skills, and feels like a fraud, happens to a lot of people. Self-doubt and the feeling of personal incompetence, which are directly connected to imposter syndrome, are common struggles in all areas of life, but leaders tend to experience them more than others.
Given the fact that leaders are expected to always be confident, self-assured, and right, that creates more pressure in the workplace, which results in self-doubt. While it often happens to male leaders as well, female leaders tend to be subjected to IS even more.
Research shows that some of the most successful leaders, CEOs, and billionaires suffer from the fear of “being found out as a fraud”, which shows that IS isn’t related to the level of success you have but is purely related to your own percipience of yourself.
A 2020 KPGM study has shown that 75% of executive women experienced imposter syndrome and many of its side effects.
The neuroscience of imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome entails many side effects, all related to your psychological health, brain function, productivity, and anxiety.
The constant fear of “being found out as a fraud” results in everyday anxiety. It most often results in higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the individual’s brain and body, which impacts their work performance, productivity, and health. While stress sometimes drives you to be more productive and efficient, when stress levels are too high, it usually results in the opposite.
Higher levels of stress and anxiety stop you from being effective, confident, and assertive, which can negatively impact the results you’re getting in the workplace.
Imposter syndrome also results in lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is connected to your mood. From there, the negative mood affects your performance, team communication, and the ability to lead others in a positive and effective way. That means that again, imposter syndrome negatively affects your leadership skills.
Motivation is also affected by imposter syndrome, as IS results in lower levels of dopamine. Dopamine is connected to the “drive” system in your body, a system that helps us pursue new things. Lack of motivation obviously ends with bad or mediocre results, lower chances of promotion and improvement, and it makes you seem like less of a high-achiever. Self-esteem also relies on dopamine, and leaders with low self-esteem tend to get worse results than those with higher self-esteem.
It’s a known fact that leaders need to know how and when to take risks – whether that’s for a project they’re managing, a high-stress decision they’re making, or the risk of aiming for promotion. However, imposter syndrome often stops them from taking those risks. Lack of confidence results in lower levels of testosterone, for female leaders as well, which is responsible for your willingness and ability to take risks.
Imposter syndrome for leaders
As previously mentioned, high-achieving leaders tend to be affected by imposter syndrome more than others. However, the main issue lies with the fact that high-achieving leaders are the ones that can feel the biggest consequences of having imposter syndrome and seeing its results.
Imposter syndrome, as we explained above, results in a lack of motivation, higher levels of stress, a bad mood, and a lack of positive risk-taking. Those side effects tend to have bad consequences for leaders, as leaders heavily rely on their motivation, effectiveness, productiveness, communication with the team and the ability to lead, and their ability to take risks and make hard decisions.
Another consequence of imposter syndrome for leaders is a lack of trust. Those who suffer from imposter syndrome show a lack of trust in their own decisions, skills, and abilities, and that results in a lack of trust from others as well. If you don’t show confidence, others won’t have confidence in your skills and decisions either.
One of the best ways to deal with imposter syndrome as a leader is simply to ignore it. Ignore the voices that tell you someone else deserves it more, that you’re a fraud and don’t deserve the recognition and success you have, and that your achievements are luck and not a direct result of your hard work. Ignore the voice that’s telling you you “conned” others into giving you the success you have. No matter what that voice is telling you, trust your gut feeling and act upon that feeling, versus acting upon the self-doubting voice.
Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change itself by developing new pathways that result in preferred behavior, relies on the practice of doing things in a new way and thinking in a new way. That means that working long and hard on un-learning past self-doubt thoughts, and learning new, healthy, self-confident responses, can help you get over imposter syndrome. While that process isn’t short, the results are worth it, especially for high-achieving leaders who are working towards higher goals.
As a female executive, gender inequality that is still happening in many workplaces enhances the symptoms of imposter syndrome, which means you have to work towards dealing with imposter syndrome as effectively as possible.
Knowing exactly how imposter syndrome affects your behavior and the connection between neuroscience and imposter syndrome, can help you treat it more efficiently. Knowing you are not the only one dealing with it and that your self-doubting thoughts are simply consequences of IS and not your lack of competence, can also help you ignore the negative voices in your head, and regain your confidence.
If you’re a woman in a c-suite or senior leadership role wanting to expand your leadership skills so that you can strategically navigate issues related to imposter syndrome in the workplace, apply for a 30-minute consultation here.
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