“I’m not sure I have it in me to go to work today”.
I woke up one morning 5 years ago and that exact thought flashed through my mind…..
My latest boss had just announced her resignation. She was my third Executive Team manager in 18 months. I was the new GM in the leadership team, constantly trying to prove myself because I’d come from outside the industry and I’d been told “the ELT took a risk on you” when I was hired.
During those 18 months, I managed a BU transformation with a number of painful redundancies. I was also traveling overseas 10 days out of 14 trying to grow revenue lines, whilst co-leading a project that was expected to resolve some fairly significant financial challenges around customer acquisition. I was constantly tired, living on a diet of coke zero, red wine, and 4 hours of sleep a night. Exercise and hobbies had taken a back seat and life had little joy.
I was burning out. Perhaps I was even there. But I didn’t realise it at the time.
When I had time to stop and think about it (much) later, I realised that one of the key reasons behind this feeling of burnout was because of my own imposter syndrome. I was running myself ragged trying to be perfect. But it was at a personal cost that actually diminished my performance over time as I became more fatigued. I refused to accept that I couldn’t do it because the little voice in my head kept telling me “everyone was waiting for me to fail”. The exec team around me at the time didn’t have the headspace to notice the challenges I had. They just appreciated the work being churned out.
Then as I typed last week’s blog and delivered our latest WoW Lab on Beat Burnout, I realised that there is even more of a connection between burnout, imposter syndrome, and the concept of abundance. Others agree. Studies state that between 42 and 62 percent of workers are reporting feeling imposter syndrome and burnout at the same time. Other studies suggest up to 86% of people have experienced imposterism at work at some point. This is a challenge many are facing but few are prepared for.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is a pattern of thinking in which you have persistent feelings of self-doubt, negative self-talk, constant fear of failing, and fear of being perceived as fraud. This is a perfect example scarcity mindset — inwardly focused and protective. Imposters often feel they need to over-work and over-deliver on projects to avoid being found out. Though they might be high achievers, they attribute success to luck or hard work, rather than ability, and fear it will only lead to being given other chances to trip up. I’ve written some other blogs about imposter syndrome here if you want to read more.
While some research suggests it might sometimes help motivate you to achieve, there is also ample evidence that the stress imposter syndrome generates can be so draining that it places intense pressure on your mental health. Why? It’s because you care so much and are willing to put a little bit extra in to make things happen to ensure success. Over a long period of time, this consumes your energy, so you dig deeper and deeper into reserves, or rely on something else to help you get the energy you need — caffeine being the least dangerous option. Unfortunately, all of these options are robbing Peter to pay Paul in the medium to long term. You’re stealing joy, happiness, peace and downtime to deliver.
As coaches, we help leaders see this happening. Over the past two years, imposter syndrome and burnout have become two of the largest threats to workplace culture and productivity. But they don’t have to be.
Tackling burnout and imposter syndrome as a leader?
You might think that you are alone as a leader with imposter syndrome. I assure you that you aren’t.
1. The way out is to shift thinking to a more abundant approach by increasing your self-perception. Start by recognising and understanding the real reasons for your successes — talent, coordination with others, communication skills, etc. They aren’t just hard work — they are because you have talents — what are they? Write them down and lean into them. You can also look at how your wins are serving your personal purpose — how are they helping you build the future you want? This is why we put Purpose at the start of the PACED model. Purpose can generate clarity and confidence.
2. Shift your thinking away from worrying about you failing and toward focussing your energy on helping others around you to feel trusted and supported. Know that by helping them, you also help everyone succeed. Embody the icebreaker leadership model. Imposters who redirect their energy to their team build trust, and connection and will always outperform any individual superstar.
3. If you’re the leader of someone with imposter syndrome, we’ve found that you can’t solve imposterism for other people using external validation. True imposters often get even more anxiety from the praise. This is because they associate their success with being lucky or because they worked especially hard. Therefore praise triggers them to work even harder to keep surviving. Instead, work with them to do the same as we’ve mentioned above and build their confidence in themselves.
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