Boardroom Beat #24 - The Imposter Experience Is Not a Syndrome



There are three reasons to erase the label “Imposter Syndrome.”
1.    It is not a clinical diagnosis nor a disorder.
2.    The imposter experience is prevalent and normalized when shared.
3.    “Syndrome” has negative connotations; the Imposter Experience includes positive possibilities.

Recently a highly respected senior Fortune 100 executive mentioned their experience of “Imposter Syndrome. ” The scenario was a benchmark meeting with one of their reports. The casual mention conveyed resigned acceptance. It was tinged with humor, which sometimes is a mechanism for minimizing a concern. 

In that moment I was struck by the power of words; my recent post “Words Matter” applies. The colloquialism “Imposter Syndrome” has permeated business vernacular, and I have been an unwitting conduit. I have propagated the term via large group seminars and authored articles. I have participated in LinkedIN conversations on the topic with GALA members.

The Unintended ‘Syndrome” Consequence

Too often leaders feel powerless and accept an endless cycle of;
•    fatigue from over performing, 
•    disappointment from the pursuit of perfection, and
•    missed opportunities for joy and celebration?

The Encouraging “Experience” Reality

“Syndrome” sounds ominous and defeating. Yet, from reams of case experience I know that many clients who experience feeling like an imposter make transformational progress.
•    They recognize triggers.
•    They normalize via the realization that they are not alone. 
•    They mobilize with a tool kit of new behaviors.
•    The minimize adverse effects.

Most clients navigating the Imposter Experience achieve management, not elimination, of the phenomenon. Coaching works in the present to increase role fulfillment and wellness in the future. Some clients elect to supplement coaching with therapy if triggers are deeply embedded from past experiences.

Three Scales for Understanding Imposter Experience

There are three queries that shape a customized approach to understanding and managing Imposter Experience. 

1. Situational or Systemic?
The pressure of a new role or a big challenge is likely to dial up Imposter concerns. This is situational, natural, and normal. It delivers the benefits of hard work and focus. In fact, the absence of any seasons of high pressure may indicate a disposition toward complacency that stymies growth. Personal and professional growth exist in tandem with taking risks and inviting discomfort.

Identifying the experience as “Situational” provides rapid reassurance and coaching proceeds with tools and mindsets for success. Sometimes situations awaken or exacerbate a dormant but systemic imposter voice. This awareness is also valuable, and leads to tools and coaching approaches.

2. Protective or Derisive?
It is helpful to understand if the Imposter “voice” is one rooted in caring. This voice is often embedded in a past that has not kept up with new evidence. It cautions a more junior and less capable self against the risk of possible failure. It is a self-protection mechanism. However, it whispers outdated information that does not reflect the evidence of new learning and evolved resilience. 

Some clients are hindered by a voice that is not kind. It is a cruel voice that has a face and a name. It may identify as a critical parent, a discouraging professor, a tyrannical boss. These are real case examples. Again, the awareness is valuable and leads to the appropriate tools and coaching approaches. 

3. Manageable or Debilitating?
This is subjective and the scale depends on what the individual considers manageable. The point of coaching is to move the meter towards more manageable. What manifests as an unsustainable experience may become manageable through the partnership of coaching.

Coaching or Therapy?

These three areas of inquiry and classification are not intended as decisive litmus tests for when coaching should be replaced or supplemented by therapy. The imposter experience is one area where coaching and therapy sometimes overlap. If the combination of queries is Systemic + Derisive + Debilitating there is a strong indication for therapy, with more focus on solving for the past. A combination of high ratings in all three present in a small percentage of my client cases. These clients may elect to replace or supplement coaching with therapy.

Names Matter       

In the classic love story story ‘Romeo and Juliet’ our tragic heroine Juliet soliloquizes  "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  

On the phenomena of Imposter Experience with Shakespeare I heartily disagree. “What’s in a name? That which we call Imposter Syndrome is more ominous and intractable.”  

The possibility of repression increases; It discourages sharing and normalizing. Drawn out of hiding Imposter Experience is typically managed with great success. 

Shelly Priebe

Since 2010 Shelly has consulted and coached companies of all shapes and sizes, ever finding herself in the midst of disruption. COVID made disruption the norm; It impacted the way people think about life and work and priorities. As the “Future of Work” is being reimagined Shelly works with companies and leaders to author their parts in the story. She delivers IPEC's Core Energy Coaching™ methodology to create awareness and shifts in the energy that feeds thoughts, emotions, and actions. She is also certified in Insights Discovery™ and Energy Leadership Initiative™ assessments. These days Shelly elevates her “inner introvert” as she relishes more time in her Tree House office overlooking Lake Austin. Her dogs rejoice that their daily trail runs are not too frequently interrupted by her travel. While she wears many hats, “Mom” of four age range 14 to 28 is her favorite, and she recently added the title of “Gogo” with the birth if her first Grandchild in 2021.