The Psychology of Imposter Syndrome in Business
Thriving as an Entrepreneurial Woman
byEleni Dracakis/September 17, 2022/inBusiness
Have you ever wondered how imposter syndrome in business *really* affects your performance as an entrepreneurial woman? From life, to business, and even success. Here we explore the psychology behind imposter syndrome in women, when to expect it and even how to use it as your signature strength (not lying).
Since you’re here, chances are you’re part of the 75% of entrepreneurial women who report experiencing imposter syndrome. So it’ll come as no surprise to you that 84% of high-achievers and small business owners have experienced imposter syndrome, too. You could say that imposter syndrome and entrepreneurs go together like gin and tonic… but in a less tasty and more hard to swallow way.
(…I mean, if Charlize Theron, Viola Davis and Michelle Obama experience imposter syndrome – is anyone truly safe? I think not!)
Here’s what you’ll learn:
According to Merriam-Webster, imposter syndrome is:
“A psychological condition that is characterised by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments, accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.”
Short, sweet. We get the idea.
But let’s be honest. As someone who’s experienced the perils of imposter syndrome, this is just the *tip* of the iceberg.
(For context: 👆 that sentence took 45 minutes to perfect. #impostersyndromeinaction)
Despite its medical undertones, imposter syndrome doesn’t actually have a medical diagnosis attached to it.
I know what you’re thinking: “then how the hell is it a SyNdRoMe?” Good question. To explain, let me take you back to the 19th century.
Figured silks were out, sheet music was in, and imposter syndrome fell under the broad umbrella of women’s hysteria.
To clarify, Merriam-Webster defines hysteria as “behaviour exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess”. You only need to watch Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2011 film Hysteria to see how wildly out of touch this truly was. The cure? “Self massage” and rest (including avoidance of any physical or intellectual activity). Luckily, we’ve come a looooong way since then.
Zoom forward to the 20th century: in 1978, psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coin the term ‘imposter phenomenon’ (as reported by ScIU). The pair find that high-achieving women experienced imposter syndrome in its most intense form. This phenomenon was then reported as an experience rather than a mental disorder. And in a 1985 paper, Clance reported six dimensions that distinguish imposter phenomenon:
*As cited from The Imposter Phenomenon, Jaruwan Sakulki, James Alexander, 2011
In 2006, gender studies found that the relationship between imposter syndrome and women was far closer than with men.
And today? Further research shows that over two-thirds of women experience imposter syndrome (compared to just over half of men). Why? For that, we need to take a closer look at psychological influences.
It’s official: the prevalence of imposter syndrome-experiencing entrepreneurs and high-achieving women runs rampant.
So it’s no wonder that we’ve probably all heard the statistic that men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the criteria, but women apply when they meet 100%. This has led to important conversations around why.
In Argentinian organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premmuzic’s controversial (yet insightful!) book, ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders,’ Tomas begs two important questions:
Short answer? No freaking way! While men naturally foster personality traits that may present as confident, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more equipped for the jobs they apply for.
“The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world, men think they are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent… The best leaders are usually humble and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women.”
– Excerpt from Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic via Harvard Business Review
2. Why is it so hard for competent women to advance?
As women, we have the ability to go forth and conquer. Let me make that very clear. Yet traditionally, career progression was attributed to Intelligence Quotients (IQ), which have been tied to logic. In reality, it’s now known that 85% of business success is due to Emotional Intelligence (EQ), with just 15% due to logic. And in general? Women exhibit more emotional intelligence (defined as the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically).
While women crave praise and approval from others, The Atlantic also reports that “what dooms women [is] not their actual ability to do well… They [are] as able as the men… What [holds] them back is their choice not to try.”
Interestingly, Harvard Business Review reports that when men progress within the workplace, this validates their work and intelligence. On the flip side, as women progress, they experience the opposite. Imposter syndrome in women feels more common than mimosas at a brunch party. Amiright?
In my 10+ years as a Business Psychologist, I’ve come to learn that while imposter syndrome is a blanket term, it presents in business and life (particularly for entrepreneurial women) in a range of ways.
To some businesswomen, imposter syndrome feels:
To get a deeper understanding of your imposter syndrome, it’s important to explore your imposter syndrome profile. Ready?
Here’s a short quiz to identify how you experience imposter syndrome in business. This will help us uncover how imposter syndrome is affecting you, your work and the way you navigate client relationships. Plus, what to look out for moving forward.
For each question, jot down (or store in your superhuman memory) which one feels most you.
1. You’re asked to speak on stage. Your immediate thought is:
a) What gives me the right?
b) They must’ve been desperate…
c) This will take soooo long to prepare!
2. You’ve been putting off something in your business because:
a) You’re scared you don’t know enough to share it
b) It may not perform as well as that last thing (which was probably a fluke)
c) If it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough (so it’s still not finished!)
3. For your business to grow, or your career to thrive, you feel you must:
a) Know more
b) Score another stroke of random luck
c) Get everything ready in a perfect plan (it doesn’t matter how long it takes!)
You feel that in order to be worthy of success, you must know more. So you often find yourself looking at competitors, envying their success and wishing you excelled in your craft as much as they do. Comparisonitis is your kryptonite and may cause you to freeze up, taking no action at all in fear of being ‘caught out.’ Know this: there is a way out!
You believe that any success you’ve achieved up until this point isn’t because you’re capable, clever or even deserving. Rather, you’ve experienced an immense level of luck and that replicating this success again could be near impossible. In business, you may find that you hold yourself back and don’t apply for opportunities, thinking that your best days are behind you. It may not feel like it right now, but there are many more bright days ahead!
You believe that to experience success, everything must be perfect. This presents itself in your business as procrastination. Read: intense planning. You believe that once the plan is perfect, your action will achieve perfection too. The problem with this is, often the action doesn’t come. It’s important to know that ways to move forward do exist!
Real talk: I’m under no illusion that we each fit neatly into one of these three categories. Because the reality is, most of us have a little of each (and a mix of other things too!). Depending on your imposter syndrome profile (these are just a couple!), together we can create a clear path forward for business and life. Have a peek at how.
Want to understand more about imposter syndrome in business? Here’s a sneaky look at when it might creep in next.
I get it. Imposter syndrome can feel unexpected, unpredictable and – at times – inescapable. So it may surprise you to know there are some times in life when imposter syndrome is more likely to show up:
Think: landing a new dream client, learning a new skill or entering a new relationship. In these moments of change, imposter syndrome loves to visit, nestle in and try to stop you moving forward. Let’s stop that!
Imposter syndrome’s belief is that it’s there to keep you safe. So of course, when you’re operating outside our comfort zone, it’ll want to protect you from the unknown. It’s completely normal to feel scared, precious and like running away from a situation that feels foreign to you.
As an entrepreneurial woman, you may find imposter syndrome presents itself in times of business growth. One of them being bringing on team members. Because of this, it may feel hard to teach others your standards (especially if you fall into the perfectionist profile). Your reaction may be to try and overly control the situation, consider letting them go (flight), take an aggressive tone (fight) or choose to give them work, then end up fixing it without giving them feedback (the urge to be right). With a clear plan, we can veer around these.
Overcoming imposter syndrome in business isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either.
Let me give you an example. Yep, we’re diving into the past of Eleni (me!), everyone’s favourite Business Psychologist who’s a sucker for celebratory lunches #signmeup. ;)
In my 20s, I landed my first corporate job. Sure, I had the degrees (Bachelor in Psychological Science (Honours) and Master in Organisational Psychology). But I didn’t have a drop of experience. And as a young female psychologist in a male-dominated workplace, I felt that my capabilities were viewed as wildly lower than men in similar roles. Inside, I felt miles behind others in my industry. Like I didn’t quite fit, and who was I to believe I could *actually* succeed in this role? Despite my degrees, I felt wildly underqualified and spent all my time outside work researching – forever fearing the moment someone asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer. I questioned my abilities: ‘who am I to influence whether someone gets a job based off my opinion on their psychological profile?’ It felt extremely intimidating. Not to mention giving professional advice to senior-level stakeholder clients.
In my mind, I had two options. Sink. Or swim fast enough to keep up with others in my industry who had proven themselves as ‘worthy’ high achievers and succeeders. I opted to swim, despite being plagued by imposter syndrome. My saving grace? Having a female mentor in my corner. Elizabeth Hughes always had my back, was my ultimate cheerleader and by my side throughout my corporate career. Elizabeth encouraged me to put myself out there, and over time, others gave back to me too.
To chase my dreams and achieve the level I aimed for, I needed to smash through imposter syndrome. So, at 32, I started my own business as a Business Psychologist, working with global corporations. Today, I use imposter syndrome as my signature strength, to drive me forward.
I know it might not feel like it right now. But, trust me (the gal who’s lived to tell the tale): imposter syndrome in business really can be a signature strength.
It keeps you in a learner mindset
It increases adaptability
It keeps you open
It protects you from *dangerous* things
So, the real question is:
After working with hundreds of women in business at different stages of life and across a wide range of industries, I know *exactly* how to uncover your CEO role and use psychology to push through (and beyond!) imposter syndrome.
As a Business Psychologist (and fellow entrepreneurial woman!), it’s my job to delve into your inner workings, unlock your key strengths and reveal what makes you uniquely you. This allows you to find clarity and direction around how to align your business self with your values so you can best turn up, in business and in life.
This may come as a shock, but you actually aren’t the problem when it comes to your imposter syndrome.
In fact, you are the solution!
It’s time to finally unlock your business superpowers. Together we’ll create a life timeline. This is so you can better understand:
From here we’ll create a plan for you to follow moving forward. You’ll leave with the confidence and clarity you need to step into your best CEO role.
Check out 1:1 business coaching or book your free 15-minute consult now!