Impostor Syndrome and How It Impacts Your Career Success

Impostor Syndrome and How It Impacts Your Career Success

Have you ever felt scared of being found out? Of feeling out of your depth? Of not being good or resilient enough?

Well, if so, you are not alone, as I am seeing in daily discussions with clients. Coronavirus is making things tough for most sectors and the legal profession is no exception with deferred partner payouts, pay cuts, four-day weeks, furloughing and recruitment freezes.

For lawyers used to working in close-knit teams, often under high pressure, enforced home-working and the lack of interaction with clients and colleagues is taking its toll on mental health. According to LawCare, a UK legal mental health charity, many are struggling with loneliness and high levels of anxiety about job security. This isolation is particularly acute for newly qualified and junior lawyers struggling with training contracts and job prospects.

Resilience is needed now more than ever and whilst it’s commonly perceived that lawyers are typically self-confident, the facts tell a different story. Surveys suggest ‘impostor syndrome’ is prolific in the legal profession with 74% of lawyers and 83% of juniors experiencing it at some point in their careers.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise? The profession is synonymous with exceptional expectations, intolerance of mistakes and risk avoidance. Impostor syndrome is common in overachievers and perfectionists, so it’s no wonder many lawyers suffer from chronic self-doubt and feel like intellectual frauds.

Impostor syndrome not only affects mental and physical well-being, it also negatively impacts performance, productivity and proactivity. By sapping self-confidence and self-esteem, it can prevent you from achieving your potential.

Impostor syndrome is common in overachievers and perfectionists, so it’s no wonder many lawyers suffer from chronic self-doubt and feel like intellectual frauds.

As a coach to top executives, I know that even CEOs live in fear of being exposed despite their outer confidence.  Which is why ‘self-confidence’, ‘overcoming self-limiting beliefs’ and ‘resilience’ are some of the most requested skills within ‘VIC – Your Virtual Interactive Coach’, the e-coaching and e-learning platform I founded.

So, why doesn’t external evidence of success always translate to inner confidence?

What is impostor syndrome?

‘Impostor syndrome’ is a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their success and accomplishments despite strong evidence to the contrary. They have an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. There are many indicators of ‘impostor syndrome’ that you may recognise, such as working long hours, being a perfectionist, refusing help or trying to always be the expert – needing to know everything yet never knowing enough.

Whilst both men and women experience impostor syndrome, women seem to suffer more than men. Women make up half of practising solicitors, but the profession is still led predominantly by men. Women from ethnic minority communities or with disabilities face tougher hurdles still. External validation alleviates impostor feelings and a lack of inclusion, role models and positive support reinforces self-doubt.

Impacts of impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome negatively impacts people’s work and personal lives in many ways. It instils self-doubt and low self-esteem and it impedes career growth, as it stops people moving outside their comfort zone to take on more challenging roles and projects. At a senior level it hampers leadership and management, impeding decision-making and innovation. Moreover, it also affects mental health, with overworking and mental burnout creating stress, anxiety and feelings of isolation. This is particularly relevant now.

So, what can you do to overcome impostor syndrome?

For some, impostor feelings are fleeting, and for others they are persistent. Here, though, are tips that can help:

  • Knowing it’s common. Studies suggest that simply knowing you are not alone helps.
  • Separate feelings from fact. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean you are. We all feel stupid or slow or unprepared at times.
  • Accept you will never be perfect and forgive mistakes. Perfection is unattainable and mistakes are how we learn best – so recalibrate yours!
  • Give yourself credit. Recognise your worth and value, internalise positive feedback and don’t fixate on the negative.
  • Attribute success truthfully. Everyone has good and bad luck. Attributing success to luck undermines your abilities and confidence.
  • Identify your ‘rules’, challenge them and rewrite. “I don’t have to be right”, “I don’t always have to know the answer”, “I can ask for help”, “I don’t have to be strong”.
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments and strengths. It’s less easy to discount your success when seen against a backdrop of past successes.

How can leaders address impostor syndrome in their team?

Having employees suffering from impostor syndrome negatively impacts the success of your whole organisation. So, take positive action to address it – particularly now with a dispersed and often isolated workforce:

  • Instil a culture of thanks and recognition. In an increasingly competitive and commoditised market, expectations of employees can be unreasonable and praise can be forgotten in the rush to meet the next client’s demands.
  • Watch out for team members who are feeling out of their depth. Look for signs of loss of self-confidence and anxiety, for example expressing greater uncertainty, becoming self-deprecating, deflecting praise, attributing success to luck or to the skills of others in the team.
  • Spot drop-offs in performance or signs of regular overwork – emails being sent way before or after normal working hours, an unusual delay in responding or procrastination over decisions.
  • Discuss impostor syndrome. Studies suggest education and coaching both help significantly. Build a culture where it’s okay to not always know the answer.
  • Attribute success fairly; reward teamwork and as well as hard work.
  • Have a strong inclusion agenda.

We want to reach out and help businesses, teams and employees during these extraordinary times by offering VIC for free. VIC gives an interactive ‘coach in your pocket’ for all employees with self-coaching tools and thousands of hours of multi-media content to help with self-confidence, stress, resilience and a host of other personal and business skills.

– Peter Ryding, founder of and award winning CEO Mentor.

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