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Beyond Doubt: How Executive Coaches Can Help Leaders Navigate Imposter Syndrome

Research suggests that up to 70% of adults, including high-achieving individuals such as executives and business leaders, will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives (Mann, 2019). This phenomenon can significantly impact quality of life, mental health, and business performance. Without a thorough understanding of imposter syndrome—including its symptoms, underlying beliefs, vulnerable groups, triggers, and consequences—executive coaches may overlook crucial "red flags" and miss opportunities to address the core issues their clients face.


Additionally, executive coaches themselves are not immune to imposter syndrome, which can compromise the effectiveness of their coaching, leading to dissatisfaction among executives and a decrease in their own quality of life. Therefore, it is crucial for executive coaches to not only recognize imposter syndrome but also to enrich their coaching toolkit with specific methods and powerful questions that enable them to help both their clients and themselves overcome this challenging condition.




Defining Imposter Syndrome

To effectively address imposter syndrome, it is crucial to understand it thoroughly, based on well-researched information. Dr. Sandi Mann, in her book "Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter? How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome," references the pioneering work of Clance and Imes who first identified imposter syndrome in 1978 (Mann, 2019). They described it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness…despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments” (Clance & Imes, 1978). Essentially, imposter syndrome involves feeling like a fraud, irrespective of one’s actual skill, intellect, or achievements.


Initially, Clance and Imes' study focused exclusively on women in professional settings. However, subsequent research has shown that imposter syndrome affects both men and women. A 2020 article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reviewed 33 independent studies, finding that while 16 studies reported higher incidence rates among women, 17 studies found similar rates of occurrence in both genders (Bravata et al., 2020).


These findings underscore that imposter syndrome is not gender-specific, although it is commonly observed in women. Dr. Mann notes that "at least 70%" of adults will face imposter syndrome at some point, particularly among high achievers—such as those often encountered by executive coaches in their day-to-day work (Mann, 2019).


Core Beliefs Fueling Imposter Syndrome

Drawing on the foundational research by Clance and Imes, Dr. Mann identifies three key beliefs and fears that constitute imposter syndrome:

  1. The belief that others have an inflated perception of your abilities.

  2. The fear of being exposed as a fraud.

  3. The tendency to attribute your successes to external factors, such as luck, assistance from others, or mere coincidence (Mann, 2019).


These beliefs and fears are central to the experience of imposter syndrome. In coaching sessions, if an executive or coachee expresses these concerns, it should be regarded as a significant indicator of imposter syndrome. Recognizing these signs provide an opportunity to engage more deeply with the coachee, exploring their beliefs and perspectives to address the underlying issues effectively.


High-Risk Groups for Imposter Syndrome

Within the research conducted by Clance and Imes, whose findings established the concept of 'Imposter Syndrome,' it was found that imposter syndrome affects women more significantly than men, and that frequent social comparisons are closely associated with heightened feelings of impostorism (Clance & Imes, 1978).


Although both men and women can experience it, research from Psychology Today suggests that women are more likely to be affected. Dr. Mann highlights a range of individuals who are particularly prone to feeling like imposters, including students, those in creative or academic professions, highly successful individuals, early career achievers, first-generation professionals or college students, individuals with non-traditional career paths, members of under-represented groups, those with high-achieving parents, self-employed individuals, and lone workers (Mann, 2019).


Imposter syndrome poses a significant challenge for under-represented groups. A 2020 BBC article features insights from Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and executive coach, who explains that systemic oppression can exacerbate feelings of imposter syndrome. He notes, “When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or undeserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.” This is because imposter syndrome is rooted in the belief that one’s abilities and accomplishments are unmerited.


Further emphasizing this point, clinical psychologist Emily Hu adds, “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field” (Nance-Nash, 2020). This lack of visible role models can reinforce feelings of being an imposter.


Consequences of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome can be triggered by several key events, according to Dr. Mann. First, it may occur when someone initially qualifies for a job, promotion, or educational program. For instance, a new college graduate who has just earned a degree may feel unqualified for professional roles that require such an education, perceiving their new qualification as insufficient and doubting their own competence.


The second trigger involves the start of a new educational endeavor, such as a course or training program. Even if an executive or coach meets the prerequisites for a program, they might still feel like an impostor, believing they don't genuinely belong. This self-doubt can hinder their opportunity to learn and grow in their role.


The third common trigger is receiving a promotion to a new or higher position (Mann, 2019). Additionally, research by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander highlights other factors that contribute to imposter syndrome, including perfectionism and family background, as published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science (2011).


Clance and Imes, in their seminal work, suggest that the root of imposter syndrome lies in societal expectations—specifically, the discrepancy between achieving high and the low expectations set by society (1978). This aligns with the observation that underrepresented groups, facing heightened societal doubts, are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome.


Mental Health Impacts

Imposter syndrome is associated with significant psychological challenges. Researchers Sakulku and Alexander have identified various mental health issues stemming from imposter syndrome, including anxiety, depression, psychological distress, emotional exhaustion, loss of intrinsic motivation, and guilt about success (Sakulku & Alexander, 2011). These issues can exacerbate the risk of substance use disorders, as mentally distressed workers are 3.5 times more likely to develop such disorders, according to the National Safety Council (2021). Additionally, poor mental health can lead to chronic diseases, sleep disturbances, and increased nicotine usage (WebMD Contributors, 2021). The cumulative effect of these mental health challenges can be particularly detrimental to executives and executive coaches, undermining their effectiveness and well-being.


Increased Risk of Burnout

Imposter syndrome also heightens the risk of burnout, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Research published in the Saudi Medical Journal in 2020 establishes a correlation between imposter syndrome and the development of burnout (Alrayyes et al., 2020). For executives, burnout can lead to significant costs for companies, such as the expenses associated with hiring replacements and the impact of poor decision-making. Coaches, too, might find their ability to manage workloads and take on new clients severely diminished.


Negative Workplace Behaviors

Further complicating matters, imposter syndrome can alter workplace behaviors. Individuals might overwork to hide perceived inadequacies, avoid sharing true opinions to protect their image, or engage in perfectionism to prove their worth, all of which are driven by fears of exposure as a fraud (Mann, 2019). For instance, an executive coach early in their career might work excessively, despite adequate qualifications and success, due to a fear of not knowing enough. Similarly, an executive might withhold their views in strategic meetings or demand perfection in all tasks, not allocating resources effectively. These behaviors are protective mechanisms to safeguard against the feared consequences of being discovered as an imposter.


Together, these effects of imposter syndrome create a challenging environment for individuals, impacting their mental health, increasing their risk of burnout, and leading to dysfunctional workplace behaviors.


Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Overcoming imposter syndrome involves several effective strategies, from group discussions to personal affirmations and mindfulness practices.


Host Peer Group Discussions

Researchers Clance and Imes highly recommend engaging in group settings with others who experience imposter syndrome, such as a “a group therapy setting or an interactional group.” While executive coaches may not conduct formal group therapy, they can facilitate peer advisory group discussions that focus on imposter syndrome. These educational and conversational sessions help executives realize they are not alone in their experiences. Additionally, discussions with mentors and peers can enhance resilience against imposter syndrome by debunking its falsehoods and understanding its impact on leadership effectiveness (Clance & Imes, 1978).


Name the Inner Critic

Melody Wilding, LMSW, suggests personifying the inner critic by giving it a name, which can help create distance from negative self-talk. For example, calling this voice "Darth Vader" and responding with "Not today, Darth," can effectively halt negative inner dialogues. Selecting a light-hearted name diminishes the perceived power of the imposter syndrome, making this a useful tactic for both executive coaches and business leaders (Wilding, 2021).


Generate a Power Statement

Instead of general positive affirmations, power statements reinforce an individual’s abilities and achievements. For instance, counter the imposter thought "I’m not good at this, I’ve just been lucky" with "I am skilled and have worked hard to succeed." Wilding recommends placing these statements where they are constantly visible, such as on a computer monitor or mirror. This practice can be particularly empowering for executives and coaches, reminding them of their capabilities and successes (Wilding, 2021).


Separate Feelings from Facts

Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, advises those with imposter syndrome to differentiate their feelings from facts. This involves recognizing imposter thoughts and countering them with concrete facts about their skills and accomplishments. For example, an executive feeling unqualified during a challenging business period can remind themselves of their qualifications and past successes. This practice helps maintain a factual perspective in the face of unfounded self-doubt (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).


Track Accomplishments

Keeping a record of positive feedback and achievements can help individuals combat feelings of fraudulence. By saving appreciative emails, journaling successes, or collecting encouraging notes, executives and coaches can revisit these reminders when doubts arise, reinforcing their legitimate accomplishments and abilities (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).


Avoid Comparisons

Dr. Albers emphasizes the importance of not comparing oneself to others. Instead, focusing on personal achievements helps alleviate the pressures and unrealistic standards that fuel imposter syndrome. For coaches, discussing comparisons during sessions can uncover the sources of these feelings and help clients set more realistic standards for themselves.


By integrating these strategies, individuals can effectively confront and overcome the challenges posed by imposter syndrome, fostering a healthier self-view and more productive professional life.


A Note on Making Referrals

Executive coaches must recognize the importance of timely referrals to counselors and other mental health professionals for both themselves and their clients. Research by Clance and Imes highlights that factors such as family background and past experiences can contribute to imposter syndrome. Given that the primary focus of an executive coach is to look ahead and facilitate progress, it is essential for coaches to exercise careful judgment and due diligence when addressing imposter syndrome with their clients.


For guidance on when and how to make mental health referrals, consider listening to episode 1027 of the Arete Coach podcast featuring Sally Rhoads, LCSW, where these topics are discussed in depth. This resource can provide valuable insights into managing the intersection of coaching and mental health effectively.


Powerful questions

Here are a set of thought-provoking questions designed for executive coaches to tailor and use with their clients to address imposter syndrome. These questions can also be used by coaches for self-reflection, either individually or in a group setting.


Questions to Identify Imposter Syndrome

  1. Your coworkers and superiors seem to hold you in high regard. Do you feel the same about your abilities?

  2. What fears are currently influencing your professional decisions?

  3. What do you attribute your successes to?

  4. Do you believe you are as competent as others perceive you to be?

  5. How do you typically respond to achieving success or receiving a promotion?

  6. Do you find yourself concealing your true opinions in professional settings?

  7. What are your views on needing to be perfect?

  8. Could you share some of your recent successes? How did they come about?


Questions to Address Imposter Syndrome

  1. If you could give a name to the voice of your imposter syndrome, what would it be?

  2. In the situations you face, what aspects are driven by emotion and which are based on facts?

  3. What statement could you use to affirm your capabilities and achievements?

  4. Do you find it beneficial to compare yourself with others? Why or why not?

  5. In what ways is imposter syndrome limiting your professional growth?

  6. What specific steps can you take to actively combat your feelings of imposter syndrome?

  7. Do you truly want to overcome your imposter syndrome? Do you think your feelings of inadequacy are justified? If so, why?


These questions are designed to inspire deep reflection and facilitate a better understanding of self-perceptions, ultimately helping both coaches and clients navigate and mitigate the effects of imposter syndrome.


Main takeaway

When addressing imposter syndrome, it's important to understand the specific role of an executive coach. Executive coaches focus on forward-looking strategies, while psychologists and counselors are equipped to delve into one's past, including family history and past experiences which, as noted by Clance and Imes, can contribute to imposter syndrome (1978). If these issues surface prominently with a client, or even within the coach themselves, making the necessary referrals to mental health professionals is crucial for wellbeing.


Executive coaching is particularly effective when imposter syndrome's roots lie more in current beliefs and perspectives rather than deep-seated psychological issues. In such cases, executive coaches can assist their clients—and themselves—in reassessing beliefs, distinguishing between perceptions and reality, and ceasing unhelpful comparisons.


Awareness of imposter syndrome and its manifestations equips executive coaches to better recognize its signs in the executives they support. This awareness fosters more effective and relevant coaching, enabling them to address the real needs of their clients and enhance their own effectiveness as coaches.


References

Alrayyes, S., Dar, U. F., Alrayes, M., Alghutayghit, A., & Alrayyes, N. (2020). Burnout and imposter syndrome among Saudi young adults. Saudi Medical Journal, 41(2), 189–194. https://doi.org/10.15537/smj.2020.2.24841


Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1


Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006


Cleveland Clinic. (2021, February 24). A Psychologist Explains How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/a-psychologist-explains-how-to-deal-with-imposter-syndrome/


Nance-Nash, S. (2020, July 27). Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200724-why-imposter-syndrome-hits-women-and-women-of-colour-harder


National Safety Council. (2021, May 13). New Mental Health Cost Calculator Shows Why Investing in Mental Health is Good for Business - National Safety Council. https://www.nsc.org/newsroom/new-mental-health-cost-calculator-demonstrates-why


Mann, S. (2019). Why Do I Feel Like an Imposter?: How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome. Watkins Publishing


Psychology Today. (n.d.). Imposter Syndrome. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/imposter-syndrome


Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75–97


WebMD Contributors. (2021, March 30). How Does Mental Health Affect Physical Health. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/how-does-mental-health-affect-physical-health


Wilding, M. (2021, August 9). 8 Easy Tricks to Quiet Negative Inner Dialogue. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/trust-yourself/202108/8-easy-tricks-quiet-negative-inner-dialogue


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