Researchers and the general public alike are rekindling their interest in an old topic—the Imposter Phenomenon (IP). I first wrote about IP in 2018. As a result of that article, I have been invited to speak on this topic several times. The reactions and questions from my audiences, along with the publication in 2019 of some new research, inspired me to revisit this topic for my current readers and share new information on the differential impact of IP for women of color and the implications for mentors and coaches supporting the development of people dealing with IP.
My recent audiences have most often been women leaders in technology and healthcare industries. They are hungry to learn about this topic and anxious to tell their own stories. By way of review, here is some background information on IP: Psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term imposter syndrome in 1978 to describe an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” The imposter phenomenon is not uncommon, but most people do not talk about these feelings and think they are the only ones having them. IP can cause people to hold back, hesitate, or fail to contribute their valuable ideas and skills. They may appear to lack confidence. When they have an opportunity to put a name to this experience and discover they are not alone, people often feel liberated and empowered.
While not uncommon, not everyone experiences IP, and symptoms can be transient and may range from mild to severe in those who do experience it. Clance and Imes’s research also shows that more women than men experience IP. While men can share these same fears, the experience tends to be less frequent and less severe—and I have known men who had intense and severe bouts of IP.
Lincoln Hill writes that the original research by Clance and Imes was based upon a homogeneous sample of white, educated, middle- and upper-class women and did not take into account the intersectional experience of women of color. Hill notes that Kimberlé Crenshaw first used the term intersectionality to describe ways “racism and sexism interlock to form a nuanced and exacerbated form of oppression.” In the case of IP, black women and other women of color who experience IP are often hit harder by it than their white counterparts. IP for women of color may be triggered and exacerbated by
- Feeling that they don’t belong when they look around and do not see others like themselves
- Being subjected to gendered racial stereotypes such as “angry Black women” or “emotional Latinas”
- Experiencing gendered racial microaggressions on the job or in school ranging from microassaults (name-calling) and microinsults (insensitive comments) to microinvalidation (dismissing their stories and complaints about their experiences as women of color)
Hill cautions us to be aware that for women of color, “racism is gendered and sexism is racialized.” In other words, we must be aware that for women of color, IP can be increased by the interplay of dynamics of race and gender within our society, which is founded on racial hierarchies and the masculine ideal.
Supervisors should note that employees dealing with IP may require somewhat different strategies to support their development. Those people who experience a fear of failure as part of their IP will go to great lengths to avoid criticism. They may feel that anything less than perfection in their performance is equivalent to failure and proof of their lack of worth. Valerie Young writes in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women that “in the imposter world there is no such thing as constructive criticism—there is only condemnation.” Consequently, supervisors, when they must give constructive criticism, should be specific about what needs to change and give extra assurance that they know the employee can make the change needed.
New research reported by W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith in the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Mentoring Someone with Imposter Syndrome,” offers helpful strategies for mentorship:
- Make their feelings seem normal—Assure your mentees that they are in good company, as many people deal with IP.
- Stop negative self-talk—Use available data, stay concrete, and create dissonance between evidence and your mentees’ self-critical statements.
- Encourage and affirm—Look for opportunities to give copious doses of affirmation and encouragement. Review your mentees’ progress and milestone achievements.
- Fight stereotypes—Remind your mentees that context matters and that race and gender can set people up to feel marginalized and like imposters.
- Share your own imposter stories—If you have your own stories, share them. It will help normalize the experience.
- Don’t let your mentees give you credit for their achievements—Highlight your mentees’ own achievements and show them how they got there.
These strategies work. As an executive coach, I have worked with many clients struggling with IP. They have been able to gain mastery and reduce their anxiety—and realize their potential. What has worked for you?
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