Things got a little spicy at last week’s panel discussion on “Imposter Syndrome (IS).” This was not entirely unexpected – as Robert Dempsey explained in his intro, he’d purposely put together a diverse mix of forthright folks who weren’t afraid “to go there.” With that kind of permission, how could we not? All four panelists, myself included, are upwardly and have experienced feeling “outside” the norm – be that by gender, economically or culturally.

The inmates are running the asylum

Danielle Smalls, the moderator asked what role “fitting in”, had in our experiences of Imposter Syndrome. Taking a step back, it should be acknowledged, the need to “belong” and “fit in” isn’t in our heads. The desire for connection and understanding is fundamental to the human experience. As nearly every teenage movie. from Mean Girls to  DrumLine, reveals, dominant groups, i.e. those with “power”, often actively exclude those on the “fringe” – either out of fear, jealousy, or bias. Rivals or new entrants are given absurd, often contradictory feedback and assignments to prove themselves. Which is really just say they are submitting to the leader’s view of reality.

How this plays out in the workplace

As an example much has been written on how women are given conflicting feedback and put in the double bind or the tightrope dilemma, that specifically that they are both too tough, and unlikeable AND also too passive and lacking in confidence. It’s so common that when I asked the women in the audience if they had experienced this – all the hands went up. A fact which seemed to startle the men on the panel.
Most women can relate to the frustration of feedback which is basically telling them to “act like a man”, or worse “we wish you were a man.”  At the same time, many of us have watched as our male peers are applauded for being kind and empathetic, while we are asked to suppress those instincts.
This “double bind” as Adam Galinsky points out in his Ted Talk , is not about “gender” or race or socio-economic differences – it’s about power.
Once you understand that, it’s easier to not take actions quite so personally. We still need to deal with it.

Release the Kraken Feminist!!

Of course, even those of use with the best of intentions can appear to fall into this trap. Towards the end of the discussion, Rob, applauded the male panelists for being vulnerable and empathetic. (To be fair, our male panelists were incredibly forthright about dealing with depression and anxiety.) I had to point out, however, that he inadvertently illustrated the point that women are often expected to possess the ability to be vulnerable and empathetic – it’s almost taken for granted, unrecognized and unrewarded. Still it helped that we had such a safe space to discuss it, in real time, candidly. It also helped that I know Rob fairly well.
I knew he did not disagree and I trusted him. He is actually the first one to agree that vulnerability and compassion are undervalued leadership qualities. It also helps that I understood the context for the comment. A big part of Rob’s personal motivation and focus is helping men unwind the effects of toxic masculinity. As a coach, he actively works on his own blind spots and helping other male leaders safely explore their own. In fact, that’s how the panel came together.

Some of my takeaways from the panel

  • Imposter syndrome often makes you feel like you are alone, or isolated. One counter to IS is to actively seek out and actively cultivate and maintain a trusted tribe, who can give you the right kind of feedback.
  • IS seems to affect innovators and folks creating their own path — with that in mind one can consider it to be a part of the process.
  • IS also seems to affect those who are humble and possess a modicum of humility — as a coach or a manager, it should be considered a GOOD sign of an intellect that is confident enough to question themselves.

Final takeaway

Diversity and inclusion is a big area of interest for me, especially now in the political climate. Having worked for some fairly conservative clients, I’ve rarely been so forthright and candid about my values and those things that I know to be true – including many gender and social inequities. At the end of the panel a few young women, including those of non-white backgrounds, thanked me for saying the things that would have been uncomfortable saying. It reminded me that there is power in simply stating the truth out loud and repeating it. Making folks aware of our different realities, and their blind spots (like how everyone has been put into the double bind position) — is the only way for folks to acknowledge and deal with these problems.