Most articles on imposter syndrome focus on gaining confidence and working on internal esteem issues as well as on managing the anxiety that can result from feeling unqualified in your job. And while I think that’s a helpful angle, I think there’s another angle to explore - the source of feeling like an imposter in the first place - which comes from the way we’re conditioned to think about how things are “supposed” to be and who is “supposed” to be in which kinds of roles as well as how experienced those people are “supposed” to be.
To break it down, the feeling like you don’t belong or deserve to be in a role comes from your conditioning about who is “supposed” to be in that role and what that person is “supposed” to look like. So fundamentally if you don’t look like what you think that role is “supposed’ to look like, you are more likely to feel like an imposter.
Let’s do an exercise to illustrate the point.
If you think that a construction worker is “supposed” to look like a man with a hat in an orange vest, you are not alone as that’s what we’re generally conditioned to think a construction worker looks like.
And if you are female construction worker, then you may feel like you don’t belong (and some others on the construction site might also feel like you don’t belong because you’re not what a construction worker is “supposed” to look like). But if you’re qualified and have done the requisite training and have been hired, you belong. You may feel like an imposter, but you are not one.
Now… If you don’t look like what a construction worker is “supposed” to look like, others may push you and challenge you until they feel you’ve showed your expertise to be at acceptable levels. They are less likely to do this to someone who looks like what a construction worker is “supposed” to look like. So yes. It’s unfair. And infuriating. And it happens all the time. And sometimes you do it to other people, too.
I’ve used the example of construction workers but this happens in corporations, businesses, hospitals, emergency rooms, supermarkets, airports and everywhere else. If someone doesn’t look like what a marketing executive is “supposed” to look like, both you and others may wonder if that person is qualified. If someone doesn’t look like what a doctor is “supposed” to look like, both you and others may wonder about their qualifications.
And obviously this can get ugly pretty quickly as people act based on their implicit assumptions and biases rather than with awareness of these implicit assumptions and biases.
But once you gain awareness of this, you can begin to get above and around it because you’ll realize that you are not an imposter. The problem has nothing to do with you. It has to do with our shared perceptions of what something is “supposed” to be like, and if you’re not what they’re expecting, then know that and perhaps even say, “I know I don’t look like what you were expecting, but I’m going to do this job well.” Don’t let your own implicit assumptions and biases about what a person in your role is “supposed” to look like get in your own way - especially if other people are already doing this for you.
And don’t let your own implicit assumptions and biases go without being examined and reflected upon. Try to understand where you are perpetuating ideas about what someone in a certain role is “supposed” to look like and where you are contributing to someone else feeling like an imposter because of your own assumptions and biases. Especially if you are a hiring manager or involved in succession planning and promoting people!
I remember early in my career, I was in a boardroom and was presenting and was standing on one foot with my knee in a chair - in other words, I was standing super informally as it had been a very long day. And afterwards, an older woman came up and said, “It is so refreshing to see a young woman who feels like she belongs in the boardroom.” I didn’t feel like I belonged there for any reason other than I’d been invited to present. But that was enough. If I wasn’t qualified, they wouldn’t have asked me to come. Get that in your head — if you weren’t qualified, they wouldn’t have you in the role. And get it in your head that not looking like what they expect can actually turn into an advantage because you can surprise people with good performance - and you can use your newfound awareness to know that you’re not an imposter and spend your energy on driving outstanding results instead of spending your energy trying to prove that you deserve to be there (which you do!).
And finally, I think it’s important to remember that business is not like math or physics or another course in school. There’s no one right answer. In business, we get paid to figure stuff out - to wade through the unknown and make the best decision possible to reach an objective based on our understanding, knowledge, judgment, resources, and best guesses. Nobody ever knows with certainty the outcome. So in some ways, we’re all imposters - analyzing and intuiting and deciding what to do without really knowing exactly how it will turn out. Get comfortable with that uncertainty and put your energy on getting better rather than on trying to prove that you belong. You already do!
Read the original article on Forbes.
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