With the labour market in free-fall and organisations out-paying each other by ridiculous amounts, Elena decided to take a punt on finding an organisation and a boss with whom she felt a better sense of fit.
It wasn’t that her current job was unfulfilling; she enjoyed the projects and tasks she worked on, and the colleagues she worked with. But those two things, big as they were, were not enough to overcome the lack of support she received from her boss, nor the lack of opportunities being offered to her.
She received accolades for her work, yet they focused on her as an ‘assist-player’. They flew in the face of organisational rhetoric that promoted collaboration, at which she excelled.
It seemed that standing out from the crowd and taking the credit were how things really ‘worked around here’.
The irony was that as a minority in more ways than one, she already stood out from the crowd…
With cognitive diversity and collaboration two key strengths as well as passions, she couldn’t see how she would expand her skills and responsibilities in her current environment.
Why backing yourself is harder than it looks
If, like Elena you are a minority in your field, you don’t just experience an uneven playing field, you may also find yourself experiencing identity threat. When you most need to back yourself, such as in job interviews for new roles, it can be hardest to do.
Identity threat evokes the fight or flight response which means that it reduces cognitive resources. Elena was getting through the first interview rounds, where the focus was on ticking the technical boxes. One of the most challenging things for Elena was answering questions about herself – her skills, background, suitability for the role – and it was in the second or third round unstructured ‘chats’ with the senior execs that this came to the fore.
Elena explained: “they ask me a question about myself and then they look down, seem distracted, don’t ask follow-up questions. They’re not giving me any signal that they’re paying attention to me or at all interested in what I can contribute to the role. It’s so demoralising.”
There are only so many times you can be told – literally and subtly – that we’re not interested in you or that you’re not a good fit here. And despite the contextual nature of these challenges, minorities still need effective ways to guard against and counter them. They need to avoid being distracted from their performance and their goals because such comments, and hostile environments, easily lead to self-doubt and feeling exposed and vulnerable.
As savvy about the reasons for this as she was, Elena still found herself full of doubt, underselling herself, holding back, and feeling fraudulent into the bargain. And afterwards, metaphorically kicking herself for having wasted the opportunity. Imposterism was sinking its hooks into her.
Unstructured hiring practices mistake affinity for talent
We well know that unstructured hiring practices like ‘chats with the execs’ more than likely bias the outcome, mistaking affinity for talent, and discounting real talent in the process. Despite that, they are still prevalent, and Elena was running their gauntlet.
But how to choose the next role, the right organisation, successfully? (The mere use of this interview style should perhaps be a warning sign.) Making sure you’re not falling into the same trap seems pretty sensible.
Two of the important considerations to reflect on prior to joining a new organisation or taking on a role with a new manager are how you make sure that the fit is right for you, and how to make sure you show up big in the recruitment game.
Not all cultures are the same
How do you avoid the cultures that are unlikely to be a good fit? To know more about their characteristics and how to identify them, check for five features of organisational cultures that cultivate imposterism. They:
- Are low in feedback and praise, which means that even when you hit the mark, you’re not acknowledged for it. High achievers need to know when they hit the mark, and will put more effort into proving themselves until they do. All the evidence suggests honest, frequent feedback and praise positively contributes to high performance and achievement.
- Expect overwork, being available 24/7. Enough is never enough. Until you fall into a heap and then it’s your fault for not being resilient enough.
- Breed competition and play favourites in the misguided belief that it incentivises performance. On the contrary, it creates winners and losers, breeds mistrust, undermines collaboration and destroys morale.
- Expect perfection and punish mistakes. They want superheroes. Personal and performance growth and learning require a tolerance for imperfection and reasonable mistakes.
- Celebrate ‘genius’, a fixed or innate view of talent by which success is believed to come from raw talent. Individuals adjust their self-presentation to project their genius as the source of their success. The need to exert effort to produce outcomes becomes evidence against success – if you have to work at it you can’t be a genius – and is suppressed.
The impact of too much stability and independence
Two dimensions, stability versus flexibility and independence versus interdependence are critical to understanding what kind of culture an organisation has and how much it cultivates imposterism.
The five elements of work cultures that are most likely to cultivate imposterism are underpinned by an over-reliance on independence and stability, and the prioritisation of power and drive: praise is limited, overwork is expected, competition is exalted and nothing less than effortless perfection will do.
As you can see in the model below, Results and Authority oriented cultures are most likely to cultivate imposterism with their focus on independence and stability. Cultures that promote interdependence and flexibility on the other hand, are more likely to be motivated by Purpose and Caring.
My analysis here owes greatly to the work of Boris Groysberg and colleagues, which you can read more about in their article. It and its associated resources provide a toolkit for understanding more about organisational culture which can help you create a concise checklist. Use it to get beneath the surface to truly understand what it’s like to work here, before you make the leap!
Just as organisations evaluate you for fit, you can evaluate them – the job, the boss and the organisation – to decide the fit with your attitudes, values, abilities and ambitions. The extent to which they engage positively with your need to assess them might be an important part of your decision process!
Results-driven cultures are the most common, and the most likely to foster impostorism
Results was by far the most common type of culture in the Groysberg study. These cultures are characterised by a preference for stability over flexibility, and independence over interdependence. The features of this type of culture are a focus on achievement, winning and top performance. There’s a drive for capability and success. This aligns closely with the cultures promoted by Neutron Jack, which I’ve written about in a previous newsletter:
At its best, in a Results culture there’s improved execution and goal achievement. At its worst, this type of culture expects overwork, breeds competition and expects perfection, making way for imposterism. So it’s not just about the kind of culture, but the extreme to which it is taken, and how individual leaders enact it in their area of responsibility.
Caring, which prioritises flexibility over stability and interdependence over independence, was the second most common type of culture. Its features include a clear prioritisation of good relationships and fostering mutual trust. People are warm, help and support each other, and leaders emphasise loyalty and sincerity. Such cultures improve teamwork, engagement and a sense of belonging. At their worst, such cultures overemphasise consensus potentially reducing the options considered as well as slowing decision making, and they stifle competitiveness.
All other styles were much less prevalent than these two.
This way of understanding cultural styles can be helpful in many ways, and in particular for providing a base to choose which type of culture is the right fit for you.
Why we need a new relationship with fear, humility and learning
Because imposterism is generally described and felt as a negative state, people try to conceal its presence. That is so counterproductive, if completely understandable.
What often drives overwork, competitiveness and perfectionism is a fear of failure. Rather than discuss fears, uncertainty and doubt as being reasonable and rational, framing internal doubts and fears as imposterism suppresses them, making them abnormal. When 70-90% of the population experiences feelings of imposterism, how can that even be a sensible proposition? Instead of considering all options in a balanced way, doubts and uncertainties are crowded out by over-confidence, and confirmation and certainty biases.
We would do well to switch our thinking – people who are super-confident geniuses can be dangerous. At their worst, they make risky decisions that can impact the lives and fortunes of thousands if not millions of people, such as they did to create the Global Financial Crisis.
Rather than continue to exult genius, promote overconfidence, and be seduced too much by certainty, we need to better value the wisdom that comes from our fears, from humility and from an openness to growth and learning.
Getting comfortable with fear, humility and learning would take us a long way to reduce imposterism, and those cultures that promote interdependence and flexibility already do this best.
What organisations can do to minimise imposterism
Organisations can support a shift to reduce imposterism, regardless of their style of culture: while it isn’t a given that Results and Authority cultures provide the ideal climate for the cultivation of imposterism, they are the ones where it is most likely without thoughtful management. Key tactics:
- Promote psychological safety
- Stop expecting overwork
- Balance competitiveness and collaboration – compete with true competitors and foster collaboration within and between teams
- Frame performance as more than what gets done, it’s also about how it gets done
- Challenge the framing of success as underpinned by archetypes such as the perfectionist, the superhero, the natural genius, the rugged individualist or the expert through which people project a sense of confidence that is beyond their means: surface the potential for and prevalence of imposterism, and encourage people to speak openly about it
- Provide support, mentor and coach minorities in how to navigate hostile terrain
- Mentor and coach majority members, especially those who don’t manage hostility – call them out
- Expect leaders to model inclusion and equip them with the skills and approaches to create value from difference – it’s not easy and they need the right tools to be successful.
Now let’s turn back to the inside, and identify what support will most benefit Elena in her quest for her new role and organisation. There are a couple of research-based interventions that are worth knowing about.
Change internal and external attributions
Attributing success to self and ‘failure’ to external factors has been shown by Ashley R Vaughn and her colleagues to decrease imposterism. The opposite, attributing success to luck or ease is associated with increased imposterism.
They found that imposterism levels were closely associated with needs for achievement and motivation. In their study, academic women who had high imposterism experienced decreased autonomy, competence and relatedness compared with those who had low levels. They felt more self-doubt, lack of belonging and lower confidence.
So, turn this on its head by helping those who experience imposterism to attribute their success to their skills and talents, and failures to circumstances beyond their control.
Reframe the discomfort of imposterism
Instead of labelling the experience ‘impostor syndrome’ – can I remind you that there is no such thing and that the label is really unhelpful? – focus on the thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable. Don’t aim to stop the discomfort, but use it to propel you forward. There is no growth without some discomfort. The more discomfort, the greater the support that’s needed to help make the stretch. You SHOULD feel insecure and perhaps a little inadequate some of the time. It is the fuel for growth.
To effectively coach Elena or someone like her experiencing imposterism, help them:
- Know they are not alone – if 90% of the working population experiences it, it is not abnormal!
- Uncover and challenge their negative self-talk, for example by constructing alternative narratives, identifying the pattern, using humour, helping them to become more mindful
- Reframe their experiences – help them to see the problem from the outside-in, not just inside-out, to see the benefits in imposterism, and provide stories of leaders who effectively manage their feelings of imposterism
- Find sources of appreciation, praise and recognition, and be one of those sources
- Turn the discomfort of imposterism into an opportunity to increase growth by identifying opportunities for further learning; this provides a tangible action to further increase success.
Gender roles and cultural, racial, sexuality and other stereotypes have a significant impact on sense of belonging and fit. Identity is threatened and confidence is eroded.
Feelings of imposterism are not solely inside-out – the result of the person’s own dispositions or personality – they can work their way outside-in. Context, culture and social settings create impostor feelings. In settings that prioritise overwork, competitiveness and brilliant perfection and which don’t reward effort, humility or learning, some people, especially minority groups, question their abilities and their worthiness.
Inside-out interventions can only go so far. Outside-in interventions that minimise key characteristics cultivating imposterism are required if we are to shift the problem. And we need to see the limitations of viewing imposterism as only negative: the world is an uncertain place and there are times when entertaining credible doubt, questioning what we know, and challenging our certainty would help us to better navigate that uncertainty.