How women can escape the Imposter Syndrome trap

Own your success, take your place at the table and power up your body language

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Carol Kinsey GomanSandra was introduced to me as a highly successful business professional with exceptional leadership skills. She was being groomed for a top executive position and she sounded perfect for my favourite kind of coaching assignment: I love working with accomplished women who are looking to become even more effective.

It should have come as a shock when, at the end of our first session, this talented and successful woman turned to me and said, “I want you to know how nervous I was meeting you. I was afraid that you wouldn’t find me worthy to work with.”

But this wasn’t shocking to me because I’d heard it before – but only from female clients.

The Imposter Syndrome is the fear of being exposed as a fraud, of feeling unworthy of your success, of not being as capable as others. Both genders experience the Imposter Syndrome, but women are more susceptible to it and more intensely affected by it.

 A female’s self-doubt can negatively impact her career when, as studies show, she pushes less often than her male counterpart for a raise or a promotion. Internal research by Hewlett-Packard found that women only apply for jobs for which they feel they are a 100 per cent match; men apply even when they meet no more than 60 per cent of the requirements.

Research shows that men and women have distinct attributional differences in how they respond to success and failure. Men are more likely to attribute success to personal factors (their ability, talent, effort) and failure to outside factors. Women tend to do the opposite: they attribute success to timing or luck, and failure to personal shortcomings.

The good news is that if you’ve fallen into the Imposter Syndrome trap, you don’t have to stay there. Here are three ways you can break out:

Own your success

Several years ago, I was coaching a woman as she prepared for a job interview. I asked her to tell me about the things she did exceptionally well that she’d want a prospective employer to know. She was silent for several seconds. Finally, she sighed and said, “I really don’t know. I do a lot of things well but when I do, I don’t notice it.”

Competence bears little relationship to confidence. It’s only when you’re aware of how good you are that you become confident.

My favourite tip for increasing that awareness is to create a success log. On a daily basis (preferably at the end of the day) write down all the things you’re proud of, situations that you handled well. You’ll see how even small successes, when recorded and reviewed, begin to make positive changes in the way you evaluate yourself.

And stop downplaying your achievements. No one gets to your level of success without talent and hard work. Even if luck played a role in your career (as it is has countless times in mine), it was no accident or quirk of fate that prepared you to take advantage of the opportunities presented.

Lastly, don’t minimize or dismiss compliments by attributing your success to other people or outside factors. The next time someone praises you, just say “Thank you.”

Take your place at the table

Too many women attending meetings sit at the back of the room, as if waiting/needing to be invited to take a place at the table. If that’s true for you, I’d encourage you to stop waiting – invite yourself.

Women can also fall into the habit of waiting their turn by holding back at meetings. When you don’t speak up and engage as an active participant in the discussion, you don’t look polite or shy – you look uninformed or uninterested. This behaviour is so prevalent that former secretary of state Madeleine Albright advises young women to “Learn to interrupt.” At least start by making a comment (or asking a question) early in the meeting, just to get used to speaking – and so other participants get used to hearing your voice.

Not only should you speak up, with enough volume to be heard clearly, you need to be both direct and brief in your speech. When you structure your comments like a newspaper (headline first and supporting points later), your input has more impact. Don’t add qualifiers that make you seem insecure or powerless: “I’m not sure if you’ll agree,” “I’m no expert, but …” or “This may be a stupid question.”

Remember: you are at the meeting because you deserve to be and your perspective is valuable.

Power up your body language

If you think that body language is merely an interesting topic for women in business, think again. Non-verbal communication skills are not only interesting, they’re a crucial part of breaking out of the Imposter Syndrome trap.

In general, women are better than men at reading non-verbal signals, but they are less aware of how to present themselves in ways that optimize their credibility, confidence and power.

Body language can sabotage your authentic self by making you look uncertain and insecure. Be aware that anytime you physically condense by rounding your shoulders, caving in at the chest and pulling your elbows tightly into your waist (all of which women do more than men), you minimize your credibility.

Conversely, status and authority are non-verbally demonstrated through the dimensions of height and space. Just by keeping your posture erect, your shoulders back and your head held high you look (and feel) more sure of yourself.

If you stand, you instantly gain a status advantage over those seated. If you move around, the additional space you take up adds to that impression. If you stand with feet hip-width apart, you look grounded. If you’re sitting, you can feel more solid by uncrossing your legs and putting both feet flat on the floor. Also, when seated, try claiming more space by widening your arms away from your body and placing your hands on the conference table or hooking one elbow on the back of your chair.

You don’t have to be a magician to escape the Imposter Syndrome trap. You can start by realizing that you, like my client Sandra, are very worth working with!

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.


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