Top 6 Techniques Female Executives Should Use to Tackle the Imposter Syndrome

30 January 2024 Heather Dailey Author avatar

Imposter syndrome - the persistent feeling of being inadequate or fraudulent despite having evidence of competence and success. It can undermine your confidence, performance and well-being. And what happens when a person experiences the incessant need to prove oneself and that intense fear of failure on a daily basis? Burnout from overworking themselves, which can have a severe impact on a leader’s physical and mental health. According to a recent KPMG study, a shocking 75% of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career. 

But imposter syndrome in female leaders isn't just about personal struggle; it holds broader implications for organizational dynamics and gender equality in the workplace and can potentially stifle the progression of other women within the organization. Understanding and addressing this syndrome is therefor crucial, not only for the well-being and success of individual leaders but also for fostering a more inclusive and equitable professional environment and importantly, creating a ripple effect that encourages more women to step into leadership roles.

Read on to uncover the top 6 most effective techniques to combat imposter syndrome and excel as a leader.

1. Recognize the Signs

There are many tangible signs that you are suffering from the imposter syndrome and the best first step to combatting this potentially debilitating mental state is to acknowledge them. For example, you may be constantly doubting yourself and your abilities, dismissing or minimizing your achievements and contributions, or comparing yourself unfavourably to others. Additionally, feeling like you don't belong or fit in your role or environment, fearing failure, criticism, or exposure as a fraud, avoiding challenges, opportunities, or feedback, overworking or perfectionism to prove yourself, and experiencing anxiety, stress, or burnout.

2. Challenge and Reframe Negative Thoughts

A truly effective way to begin the process of recognising your right to your success and regaining your confidence is to replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. A specific technique to use is cognitive restructuring which is identifying and challenging the negative thoughts and replacing them with positive, realistic ones. This practice improves your mental well-being and how you perceive and react to situations. You can also find a specific mantra that will offer support whenever you recite it to yourself. Find a poem, lyric, quote or any phrase that holds meaning to you. One that will remind you of your power, so that it rises above your doubts and fears.

3. Gather Accomplishment Evidence

Collecting evidence of your accomplishments is a crucial strategy to combat imposter syndrome and self-doubt. Start by compiling tangible proofs of your achievements, such as certificates, awards, and positive feedback. Keep a record of personal growth moments, successful projects, milestones reached and moments where you tackled challenges and never hesitate to ask for endorsements from colleagues which can serve as external recommendations and validation.

4. Surround Yourself with Champions

Having your own champions can come in many forms – a mentor you look up to and those who make up your inner circle. When you have a mentor you can confide in and discuss confidence issues with, you will be reminded of your strengths, talents and why you are where you are. According to the KPMG study, 47% said having a supportive performance manager and 29% said feeling valued and being rewarded fairly helped to combat their feelings of being an imposter in their role. And extending beyond your mentors, when you further surround yourself with your inner circle, they are people who are closest to you, who know you, who understand your goals, values and purpose. This support group will further boost your confidence and deflect the negative influences causing you to feel inadequate and fearful.

5. Embrace Risks

Understanding that the fear of failure is a common part of leadership allows for a shift in perspective. Reframe risk as an opportunity for growth rather than a potential failure - this will be empowering. Then begin by taking smaller, calculated risks. This approach unleashes the development of confidence and can gradually build up to taking on more significant challenges. Each successful risk taken, no matter how small, can serve as evidence against the feelings of imposter syndrome. And finally, view challenges as opportunities for growth rather than as threats to competence. Even if the risk doesn’t lead to the desired outcome, there is value in the lessons learned and the experience gained. By taking on new challenges and opportunities that stretch your skills, you can increase your confidence and competence.

6. Change the Work Environment by Changing the Language

Finally, language and bias drive the culture in a workplace. Discrimination and bias shape our expectations of how leaders should look, sound, and act. We live in a world where white, straight males have typically been seen as the epitome of leadership and success. But even more, we accept the several ways male leaders show up and appear in the workplace (think from the raging tempers and sharp suits of Donald Trump to the jeans and hoodies of leaders like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook). When we can acknowledge this reality, we can work on changing the bias. Female leaders must widen definitions of leadership and the words we use to describe leaders. Managers best support women by genuinely listening to their experiences of gender and/or racial bias and can then work together with their team to dismantle the negative and unsupportive language used when it comes to females and female leaders in the workplace.

The journey for women leaders to overcome imposter syndrome is not just a personal victory but a significant stride towards instigating broader organizational and societal change, fostering environments where diverse leadership styles are valued and where true merit and capabilities are recognized and celebrated. By conquering the self-doubt and persistent fear of inadequacy that imposter syndrome brings forward, females lead with greater confidence, make decisions more decisively and become role models and mentors for future generations of women leaders, demonstrating that success won't be spoiled by unfounded fears of incompetence.

Interested in learning more about leadership? Join Public Sector Network’s Leadership for New Managers in Government. You can learn more and register for this not-to-be-missed training session at Leadership for New Managers in Government

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