03 Nov 2015

Imposter Syndrome – the dark side of leadership

When I was at TEDx at Stanford a couple of years ago I listened to a talk about 100 CEO’s who were asked to share a secret they had never told anyone. Keen to spread the word about basic human emotions so that stressed business leaders find permission to articulate their feelings, I wanted to share some of these secrets. So for my own talks on the neuroscience of leadership resilience I picked out the six or seven of those secrets that were similar to concerns my own clients (mostly CEO’s, CIO’s and CFO’s in the FTSE 100, Law Firm Partners or Investment bankers) had shared with me during coaching sessions. There were various themes around fear of burnout, untimely death, loss of connection to loved ones etc. but the one that resonates with someone every time, and wherever we are in the world is: 

“I am afraid I will be found out for being a fraud.” 

I have heard this from the CEO of a tech start-up in the US to a hedge fund billionaire in the UK, with every thing in between from an FMCG in Africa to a bank in Asia. I could go on. It was certainly a widespread feeling amongst junior doctors when I was still working in the NHS. But I did not expect to change from a career in Psychiatry to become a leadership consultant and deal with so many people at the edge of burnout, heart attacks, depression or at the very least consumed by a cloud of self-doubt and an ultimate fear that they would simply not “survive” long enough to maintain their children’s lifestyles or their social expectations.

In box 11.3 on page 206 of my book Neuroscience for leadership, we write about Imposter or fraud syndrome as “not a true psychological syndrome but a name for a feeling that one isn’t sufficiently competent or expert enough to be in the position one is, and/or that one does not deserve being appointed to a higher post. One’s successes are often self attributed to luck or mistakes by others, rather than one’s skill, hard work or expertise.” 

I would extrapolate further that the fear of “being found out” could be associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and that the “not deserving” would correlate with lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin which relates to mood, and low levels of dopamine which are connected to reward and motivation. Whether you are male or female, the lower your confidence, the lower your testosterone levels. So all in all, a rather nasty chemical cocktail of fear, shame, uncertainty and mistrust at a table for one in a dark corner please!

Do you recognise these feelings in yourself or in the behaviour of a colleague? Because the effects of that cocktail, like any other, has a knock-on effect on the people around the bar. It only takes one troubled personality, one bad relationship at the top or a cultural legacy that feeds these insecurities to create a hot bed of toxic team dynamics that hold you all back from truly high performance. 

This particular genre of insecurity can lead to poor self-care and over indulgence in quick fix substances such as sugar, caffeine, alcohol and drugs. So keeping your body in the right physical condition to work on the mental and emotional stuff is key. Read this again after a good night’s sleep, a 30 minute run or a spot of mindfulness meditation and see if it triggers the same thoughts or feelings in you. Lend it to your colleague after taking them out for a healthy lunch and a stroll back to the office and see if they seem willing to listen rather than go straight to denial. 

Because the thing is, if you or anyone else feels like this, however consciously or sub-consciously, you project all sorts of messages out to the world that signal the ultimate deal breaker: lack of trust. If you don’t have trust in yourself (self-belief) then why should anyone else trust you? If you feel the need to assert yourself unnecessarily then why would anyone want to collaborate with you? These messages are given out and responded to in split second timing by the tiny part of the brain called the amygdala which is deep in the limbic system – the ancient, emotional and intuitive part of the brain.

Given what we know about neuroplasticity now (the ability of the brain to change itself), it is much easier than you may think to learn to regulate these instincts, build up brain power in the pre-frontal cortex – the modern, logical part of the brain used for articulated speech and predicting and planning for the future – and to role model the benefits of these to your teams and peers to create the conditions for success in your organisation and make sure it continues to thrive in an uncertain future. 

Dr. Tara Swart
Medical Doctor, Neuroscientist, Leadership Consultant, Author, Speaker, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan, NED

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