We Should All Have Imposter Syndrome

Career AdviceDEILeadership StrategiesTeam Effectiveness
文章图标 Article
五月 20, 2024
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Career AdviceDEILeadership StrategiesTeam Effectiveness
Executive Summary
Long-touted as damaging, new research shows that “imposter” feelings might be a leadership secret weapon. Here’s why that matters for women.


Women leaders are 2x likelier than men to experience imposter syndrome. That might make them more interpersonally effective leaders.

Despite performing alongside (or, on coaching & development measures, even outperforming) their male counterparts, women leaders are more likely to feel imposter syndrome—the popular term for sentiments of feeling like you’re undeserving of the role you have or successes you’ve achieved.

Recent Russell Reynolds Associates research found that women leaders are 2.3x more likely to believe they are not equipped to do their manager’s job than men, with 34% disagreeing with the statement, “if my manager were to leave, I have the skills and experience needed to do their job,” versus only 15% of men (Figure 1).

But what if a dose of imposter syndrome wasn’t such a bad thing?


Figure 1: Self-perception of next-level leadership capabilities: women vs men

Self-perception of next-level leadership capabilities: women vs men

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates' H1 2023 Global Leadership Monitor, n = 884 C-level and next gen leaders


While the detrimental impacts of imposter syndrome are well documented, research from Dr. Basima Tewfik at MIT Sloan School of Management seeks to reframe this understanding. Asserting that previous research has incorrectly conflated the phenomenon of imposter syndrome with its negative emotional consequences, Tewfik shows that the concept’s subsequent popularization resulted in a reputation that outgrew its scientific foundations.

In research published in the Academy of Management Journal, Tewfik demonstrates that individuals who experience more workplace imposter thoughts were seen by others as more interpersonally effective – that is, they cooperated, interacted, and worked well with others. This is because “imposter thoughts” encouraged these leaders to focus their attention on their relationships with others, rather than on themselves.

Importantly, despite this focus on others, Tewfik found that workplace imposter thoughts did not impact individuals’ subjective or objective job performance.

Viewing imposter syndrome through this lens not only re-aligns the concept with its original, scientific roots, but it also opens the door to exploring other positive effects.


Imposter syndrome and the changing leadership profile

With technology & generative AI advances increasing the need for human-centered leadership, continued economic and geopolitical uncertainty impacting organizations and individuals alike, and boards increasingly prioritizing social skills in their C-suite hiring, leaders who are more socially collaborative are more likely to be successful.

And, as Tewfik’s research displays, feelings of imposter syndrome can actually improve leaders’ ability to do just that.

For women leaders and the organizations looking to retain them, this presents an opportunity to shift the paradigm about what makes an effective leader in today’s uncertain environment.


Considerations for women leaders

Instead of letting them weigh you down, embrace imposter thoughts. Recognize that they are a healthy sign one is confident in their own abilities and mindful of where others are better equipped than them.

Successful, vulnerable leaders—who we admire and willingly follow—openly accept these thoughts and leverage them to be more learning-oriented in their approach.

In their absence, you will find two scenarios, both of which suggest ineffective leadership: narcissism, which reflects a disastrous cocktail of entitlement, attention-seeking behaviors, inflated self-views, and a lack of empathy towards others, and unfounded overconfidence, where the unskilled are also unaware and tend to overestimate their abilities on tasks they actually know very little about.


Considerations for sponsors of women leaders

Is your sponsee feeling like an imposter? Beyond the obvious reassurances you’ll likely provide, encourage them to use these thoughts to propel themselves into learning mode.

Leaders who don’t assume they know how to do something tend to be more active in looking to learn about said issue. As a result, they’re more open to the experience and expertise of others, invariably making them more insightful and collaborative.

Given the nature of leadership today—where issues and opportunities are rarely unidimensional and naturally require leaders to engage across domains and disciplines—no one in a leadership position should assume they have all the answers or know more than others. Thus, those who are skeptical of their own capabilities are actually better positioned to succeed.


Considerations for organizations

To navigate our current polycrisis, look to your women leaders. Odds are, they are already making decisions that prioritize others. It benefits everyone to help women leaders see themselves more objectively, creating more opportunities (be it through taking on more responsibility or via continual encouragement and advocacy) for them to take the next step.

Beyond giving women leaders better titles or compensation (both necessary), organizations also need to understand whether they are creating an environment that truly supports advancement and rewards human-centered leadership.

In 2013, McKinsey found that corporate culture is twice as important as individual mind-sets in building women’s confidence that they can reach a top management position. If organizations retain more women, who we now know are more motivated by factors that impact more people, they’re more likely to foster a culture that will encourage the next generation of women leaders to aim for the top as well.


The bottom line

The world needs more women leaders. Rather than eschewing imposter thoughts—long thought to hold leaders, particularly women, back—reframe them. Feelings of imposter syndrome may actually be one of your superpowers in the future of leadership.




Leah Christianson is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in San Francisco.
Navio Kwok is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. He is based in Toronto.
Margot McShane co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates’ Board & CEO Advisory practice in the Americas. She is based in San Francisco.
Hetty Pye is a senior member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Board & CEO Advisory practice. She is based in London.


The authors would like to thank our Kilberry colleagues whose piece, The Hidden Benefits of Imposter Syndrome, helped provide the framing for this article.