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Affect or Effect: The Imposition of Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Jan 21

Imposter Syndrome is something that really hits home for many of us, especially those who constantly strive for excellence or greater levels of success. Coined back in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, it's that nagging feeling of being a "fraud," even when you've clearly succeeded. It's surprisingly common in the high-pressure world of leadership, and it seems to affect women more than men, according to psychologists.

Now in my 50s, I can confidently say that Imposter Syndrome is far from a mere legend. It's a shadow that's loomed over many outstanding individuals I've looked up to, trailblazers who have conquered their fields; and yes, a feeling I have felt in my own story as well. Step back with me to when I was 23 years old, moving into my first leadership role. The doubts I had in myself were as numerous as the implications of doubt I perceived others had in me as well. There I was, a young leader, guiding a team seasoned with experience and years of wisdom that I hadn't yet earned. Yet, rather than building up a young leader, many felt it necessary to judge my capabilities based on my age, how I looked, or some critiques even more absurd than that. These experiences didn't just pass through my life; they lingered...stifling me at times, but ultimately helping me grow not only professionally, but personally too. Now, with almost three decades of hindsight, I've learned to see beyond appearances and to understand that things aren't always what they seem.

Often, "Imposter Syndrome" stems not from self-perception, but from the challenging environments or individuals we encounter. Many people, driven by their own feelings of inadequacy, attempt to belittle others to boost their self-importance. This behavior is particularly evident in those who feel insecure about their abilities or skills. These individuals, who might display narcissistic traits, often try to assert their dominance or relevance, regardless of their actual expertise. In the process, they undermine others, leading them to question their own skills, knowledge, or decision-making abilities. This kind of behavior, akin to professional gaslighting, is a common way that Imposter Syndrome takes root in someone's mind.

Identifying narcissistic, professional gaslighters is straightforward, but they are often symptoms of a deeper issue rooted in the workplace culture. Factors contributing to such environments include:

  1. High-Pressure, Competitive Workplaces: Intense performance demands and competitiveness can lead to a blame culture, reminiscent of the Enron scandal, where individuals feel constantly under scrutiny.

  2. Lack of Recognition and Excessive Criticism: When feedback is predominantly negative, employees might never feel valued, contributing to self-doubt.

  3. Homogeneous Work Cultures: Uniformity in team member backgrounds can create unwelcoming environments for newcomers, hindering acceptance and collaboration.

  4. Unclear or Changing Roles/Rules: Ambiguity in roles or frequently shifting rules leads to insecurity and doubt about leadership integrity.

  5. Overemphasis on Credentials: Valuing prestigious backgrounds over diverse experiences can make some employees feel undervalued, especially if their background differs from the industry norm.

  6. Lack of Support: When employees' concerns and contributions are ignored, it leads to feelings of insignificance, affecting leaders and team members alike.

Leaders in such environments might withdraw or hide their opinions or thoughts as a means of self-preservation, often mistaken for Imposter Syndrome. However, this response is more akin to PTSD (Post Toxic Supervisor Disorder) a reaction to a harsh environment rather than a self-inflicted doubt about one's achievements.

It's crucial to differentiate between Imposter Syndrome as an 'effect' of external factors like poor leadership and an 'affect' of our self-perception. Recognizing this can help us let go of unfounded self-doubt, reclaim confidence, and recognize the value of our contributions that may or may not have been recognized previously. It is an unfortunate circumstance that Imposter Syndrome is frequently an "Effect" of how a person has been treated, which causes them to question their abilities and skills, rather than an "Affect" of a person's own self-assessment.

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