Imposter syndrome

After attending an excellent Women+ network event hosted by DAC Beachcroft alongside Professor Sharon Mavin from Newcastle University Business School, Sir James Mackey from Northumbria Healthcare, Chris Cook a former Olympic swimmer (and Commonwealth gold medallist) and Virginia Clegg a senior partner at DAC Beachcroft, I wanted to share my thoughts and perspective on ‘imposter syndrome.’

So what is ‘imposter syndrome’? First and foremost, despite what some might say, imposter syndrome is real and can have a devastating impact. It usually manifests itself with a cruel mixture of anxiety and a persistent ability to not recognise one’s own success.

With Sir James Mackey at the event.

But its symptoms include perfectionism, struggling with criticism (and praise!), overworking, always comparing oneself to others, and feeling like a fraud or that you don’t belong here. Whilst it can affect anyone, it especially affects women and it is something that I have definitely acutely felt during my career.

Some studies argue that women tend to be more affected or susceptible because they produce less testosterone – the confidence hormone. Others believe that men are more likely to ‘push through’ the affects they feel, whereas women tend to ‘give in’ to their self doubt.

Recent research by NatWest showed that as many as 28% of working women feel that imposter syndrome has stopped them speaking in a meeting, 21% of women have been prevented from suggesting a new or alternative idea at work, and 26% have failed to change career or role as a result.

And this personal impact aggregates and combines with other equality issues for women in the workplace to have a real impact on the economy – particularly acting as a drag on productivity. According to the ‘Rose Review’ of female entrepreneurship, led by Alison Rose at NatWest, only 1 in 3 entrepreneurs are women, a gender gap equivalent to more than 1 million fewer female entrepreneurs in the UK. The review also found that closing the gap between women and men could add an additional £250bn in gross value to the UK economy – the equivalent of 4 years of economic growth.

So how can we combat this, and what have I done? Well, I have found it helpful to start by really understanding the physiological effects I and many others feel. As imposter syndrome comes from a fear of failing, or anxiety about humiliating oneself, it is often driven by a desire to be perfect. At work and in life more generally we regularly set high expectations or ourselves, and often it can be hard, or sometimes even impossible, to live up to these standards.

Entrepreneurs, or people striving for success by being the first person to do something, such as female senior managers and executives in large organisations or industries that have historically been male dominated, may be most likely to experience imposter syndrome as they are always stepping out of their comfort zone. It is at this time when we are most likely to question ourselves and our abilities.

Our brains are hardwired to protect us slipping too far into the unknown. This comes from the early days of humanity, when we needed that fear to protect us. These days we are no longer under threat from animals but the same part of our mammalian brain (the amygdala) is still firing as though we are facing a life threatening situation.

But it can be with us throughout our careers, no matter how much success we have, or are perceived to have. Whilst it may be always with us, however, we don’t feel it all the time. For me, I have tried and used a number of techniques to deal with it, including trying to think about completing work rather than perfecting it, learning how to put a full stop at the end of a piece of work or meeting, and understanding how to take both constructive criticism and saying thank you for praise. But these day-to-day techniques take practice and I do not think are sufficient.

Like any physiological reaction and the physical challenge it creates, it takes time to master it. Here I found that sponsorship, mentoring and coaching can be a huge help. Throughout my career I have spoken with a number of coaches and sponsors about how I am feeling and how I am approaching my day-to-day and career development.

I have found that having people you trust to level off with and talk to has helped me to understand and shape my authentic self. This has given me a strong designation, message and reminder of who I am, what I have achieved and am good at, and what can put me at ease in any scenario. Having these clearly stated, and even written down, has been such an important benchmark for me when I get on stages to talk to people, or go into the meetings that I feel uncomfortable and anxious about. It has helped me motivate myself through kindness, not fear, and think about the positive impact I have.

So much of healthcare is delivered in teams, whether it is on the ward, across staffing groups of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, or in the board room. Supporting and giving staff the tools to have a positive mindset and minimise feelings of imposter syndrome can make such a difference to how these teams work, and how they provide excellent care to patients.

At Newcastle Hospitals we are doing this through our cornerstone ‘Flourish’ programme, The central aspect of ‘Flourish’ has been to shape the employee wellbeing agenda by adopting a holistic approach to creating a healthy workplace.

This focuses on the key themes of a well workforce, being valued and recognised, and behaviour and culture. In order for us to continue to deliver outstanding healthcare, we need people to be open to their feelings and emotions, and it is our job as leaders to nurture all staff to look after themselves and liberate their full potential. Everyone who works in healthcare realises what an incredibly hard job it can be at times, and by equipping people with the tools to improve, do something different in their life, and deal with the negative impact of things they experience can help make this hard job a little bit easier.