“Soul-destroying”: A leadership coach takes on imposter syndrome, and why the term should be banned 

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A 2023 survey* asked 1000 UK workers in the professional services sector how they feel in their place of work and what helps them feel more confident in the workplace. Although the majority of UK workers are confident at work, they still get the wobbles sometimes. The survey revealed that around 49% of UK workers feel they suffer from low confidence during performance reviews, even though 71% of those respondents feel confident at other times.

When it comes to why employees may feel like they lack confidence in the working environment, it may be down to imposter syndrome. Wellness and leadership coach Deborah (Debbie) Green shares what imposter syndrome is and how to overcome it, drawing on her 18 years’ experience in helping people get a leg up on their workplace confidence. 

What is imposter syndrome?  

Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition where people undervalue, and feel that they are unworthy of, their successful attributes and achievements and harbour an innate fear of being “found out”. YouGov found that half of Brits find themselves experiencing imposter syndrome, making it a common phenomenen in workplaces around the nation.  

In treating workplace confidence issues, Debbie has found that imposter syndrome can affect anyone regardless of their seniority or level of experience.“When people say step into a coaching session,” she comments, “they are who they are in that moment, regardless of seniority. People have the same hang-ups about whether they’re good enough, or will they be caught out.” 

What is the impact of imposter syndrome? 

The impact of imposter syndrome changes from person to person, but those who have imposter syndrome tend to exhibit these behaviours

  1. You believe you’ve fooled others into thinking you’re more skilled or capable than you are. 
  2. You credit your success to external factors outside of your own abilities, such as luck. 
  3. New tasks trigger feelings of anxiety and doubt, which you respond to with intense over-preparation, and relief when the task is done. 

This cycle of behaviours can also lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of imposter syndrome, contributing to a person feel burned out at work. 

Employers may think imposter syndrome manifests in their staff as nervousness handing in work or a lack of confidence when talking about their work. However, in some cases, it has been seen that those with imposter syndrome overcompensate and provide a higher quality of work than they believe themselves capable.

The BBC spoke to Basima Tewfik, assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the topic. Her study showed that those with imposter syndrome tend to excel even if internally they are suffering. 

How to overcome imposter syndrome? 

When it comes to imposter syndrome, it’s not something you get rid of with just a positive attitude; it’s a process. But there are steps you can take to redirect those feelings and boost your confidence in your work. 

This study* also found that 60% of people use music to help build up their self-confidence at work when faced with a stressful scenario, with their reasons for listening to it being that it makes them feel less anxious (45%), more relaxed (35%) and more confident (33%). 

Debbie has dealt with imposter syndrome and low confidence in her clients but finds the term problematic. “I just wish it [the term imposter syndrome] could be banned and we could change it, because one, we’re not imposters, and two, we don’t have a syndrome.  

“I think when people go, ‘maybe I’ve got imposter syndrome’, they search it, and then they go, ‘oh yeah, I’ve got that. I’m lacking in confidence. Yeah, I’ve got that. I’m not forthright. Yeah, that’s me. I don’t speak up in meetings. Oh yeah, that’s me.’ So, they self-diagnose as having this syndrome, and don’t consider the nuances of the underlying anxieties. 

“I think it can be actually quite soul-destroying for people because it can ruin any chances of success, and it can stop people from fulfilling their potential because of this fear, and this negative self-talk, that comes from waiting to be called out as an imposter.” 

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When it comes to overcoming low confidence and low self-esteem in the workplace, Debbie has shared some hints and tips here.

* A survey commissioned by PPL PRS of 1000 people in the UK who are working in offices and workplaces in the professional services sector in June 2023.

About the author

Debbie Green is PPL PRS’ Leadership Coach. She advocates growing confidence through routine, challenging your inner critic and music. She passionately believes that a good tune evokes an emotional connection and powers productivity at work, improving performance in all aspects of your life. Whether you’re playing music in an office or hair salon, it’s universally impactful!

Debbie started WishFish Coaching & Development in 2006. She lends her expertise in people to coaching professionals in their careers to build self-esteem, regardless of seniority level or industry. She also believes in helping leaders and HR professionals instil confidence in their teams so that everyone can be the best version of themselves. Her insightful podcast ‘Secrets From A Coach’ covers self-belief and developing an optimistic mindset.

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