Show Imposter Syndrome The Red Light

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Improve your skills as a leader

By Jane Oeffner, PT, DPT, MBA

As leaders, as well as physical therapists and physical therapist assistants, we often must forge ahead without all of the answers. The very nature of our roles leads us into ambiguous situations, forcing us to improvise with a smile in order to do the best by our employees and/or patients. However, those struggling with Imposter Syndrome do not possess the confidence to do so, inhibiting them from excelling. Even more detrimental is the drain on relationships. How do you connect with colleagues and patients with walls up to protect you from being “found out”?

Those challenged by Imposter Syndrome are often high achievers, who work hard to reach perfection. However, once at the top of their game, they do not feel like they deserve the success they have achieved, that they did not arrive on their own merit but by the result of an oversight or sheer luck. Thus, they are immersed in doubt and fear of being discovered as a fraud often demonstrating the following behaviors, all of which can negatively affect well-being, career advancement, and on a larger scale, the success of an organization.

IMPOSTER SYNDROME AFFECTS EVERYONE

If you are having an aha moment, realize that you are far from alone and join the population and esteemed leaders such as Michelle Obama, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Albert Einstein, and Nolan Ryan, the greatest pitcher of his time. Indeed, the focus of the literature has been that women and members of historically marginalized communities (HMCs) are most affected by Imposter Syndrome, pointing towards individuals for the roots, such as disposition and personality, and solutions of the “syndrome.” Feenstra et. al. offer an alternative perspective regarding the environment’s role in eliciting imposter feelings, preferring the term “imposter phenomenon.” They propose that these internalized, negative perceptions of self are the result of social context and interactions that lead people to question their abilities and worth, and in doing so, offer more structural and systemic, and therefore sustainable, solutions to combatting this phenomenon.

Even before stepping into the workplace, our society, with ever-changing digital technology and the constant temptation for comparison that social media drives, is a breeding ground for self-doubt and inadequacy. And then, such feelings are exacerbated by workplaces that:

  • Thrive on competition and comparison
  • Demonstrate poor communication and unclear expectations
  • Take a punitive approach to mistakes
  • Lack diversity and mentorship which can reinforce a sense of isolation and “otherness”

The fallout? Reduced productivity, decreased risk-taking and therefore innovation, poor retention, limited leadership pipeline and underperforming teams. Fixing the places where individuals work as opposed to fixing individuals at work is where leaders should focus.

Even the most fearless leaders have fears. At the same time, it is the leader who can, by dealing with those feelings in a constructive manner, model productive behaviors and create an environment and culture where others will not fall into the black hole of Imposter Syndrome.

HOW LEADERS CAN HELP THEIR TEAMS

Leaders can utilize strategies to help their team members deal with imposter feelings. One-to-one conversations where staff feel comfortable to express their doubts and fears provide the leader with the opportunity to validate their accomplishments, identify and ally with them by sharing their own vulnerabilities, and help them reframe their thinking and change their self-talk. 360 assessments offer positive reinforcement from peers that might not otherwise be shared. Standardized strength inventories help staff internalize their strengths and leverage them fully. Foster a culture of recognition where even the smallest successes are observed. Remember, not everyone likes to be recognized publicly, which ironically can contribute to imposter feelings — having to live up to that praise. A “brag file”, a document where wins at work, no matter how big or small, are logged is a great tool to help with positive reflection on accomplishments and overcome the tendency to attribute them to luck. Encourage staff to utilize their vacation time and other self-care activities (even offer these) that nurture mental health and positive self-belief.

‘CONSCIOUS LEADERSHIP’

These practices are the building blocks of “Conscious Leadership,” guiding others with full awareness of the self and cultivating growth in organizations by supporting the people in them. Larry Benz, CEO of Confluent Health and a proponent of Conscious Leadership, believes that the antidote to imposter feelings in leaders and clinicians alike is a trusted advisor and knowledge. Educate to bring normalcy around such transient feelings of hesitation and self-doubt and to recognize when imposter feelings become persistent and dominant, requiring professional intervention such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Teach clinical mentors that confidence in front of a patient is a cognitive skill to be taught and learned, just like compassion, empathy and active listening. Share those patient scenarios where judgement was off, outcomes were not achieved, or mistakes were made …. and imposter feelings surfaced.

Upon graduation, Lauren Bilski, PT, DPT, not only a top and involved student but an accomplished performer, landed her dream job at a premiere rehab hospital where positions were coveted and competitive. Even so, imposter feelings kicked in. Why did she, and not another classmate, deserve this job? How could she fit in among all these super accomplished therapists? Her poor patients, wouldn’t they be getting shortchanged by having her as their therapist? Even so, Lauren excelled, and she attributes her success to the culture and those that oriented and continually mentored her, making her feel she fit in as a valuable part of the team. They made it ok not to know and always comfortable to ask. A move across the country brought her to a city where she knew no one, her next job, and, again, imposter feelings. Except this time, she did not find the same support and sense of belonging, so she left the position. Addressing imposter feelings through education and strong mentorship are keys to retaining your best clinicians and leaders.

ADDRESS AND PREVENT IMPOSTER SYNDROME

What are some organizational shifts that leaders can make to address and even prevent imposter phenomenon at its true source? One is to incorporate policies and practices that make diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) a priority. When leaders, executives, staff, clinicians, and students look around and see no one that looks like them, a feeling of “otherness” and/or “onliness” can pervade and imposter feelings surface. Do I really belong here? What will happen when they find out? The feeling of “otherness” can be related to age, level of experience, gender, race, sexual preference and culture. Ijjae Hill describes her time of starting undergraduate pre-physical therapy studies at Widener University where she saw few women of color, both in the student body and the faculty. She felt a decreased sense of belonging and her confidence wavering, while hours away from home and therefore her community and support system. Fortunately, she tapped into the Multicultural Student Affairs Office who helped her reflect on her previous accomplishments and become empowered with the feeling that she would be successful. Ijjae also threw herself into campus life and emerged quickly as a leader who was recognized and sponsored by upper-level administrators. This organizational support and external validation by trusted advisors helped her rise above her imposter feelings, which resurfaced when she entered the professional three years of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program this Fall. Her approach this time is more self-reliant and comes from her inner drive to contribute to the solution of a more diverse physical therapy profession, both in the clinic and in academics.

Leaders’ “sponsorship” of those experiencing “otherness” and potential subsequent imposter feelings takes encouragement, reinforcement and mentoring to the next level, and is a powerful way to increase diversity and inclusion in organizations. Mentorship involves direct support of another, while sponsorship focuses on acting with intention to enhance others’ impressions of that person. Dr. Rosalind Chow, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University and a thought leader in DEI&B in the workplace, defines the ABCD of sponsorship: Amplify, Boost, Connect, and Defend (Figure 1). Using social capital to elevate those who might otherwise go unnoticed keeps Imposter Phenomenon at bay by both enhancing the confidence of individuals and promoting a culture of collaboration and support.

figure one

Imposter syndrome is bound to surface among a team of high performers, and thus we are destined to encounter it in the physical therapy profession, both as individuals and leaders. A certain amount of self-doubt is normal and utilized productively, will catalyze growth, driving us to self-improvement and greater success. However, persistent and dominant imposter feelings can be paralyzing, negatively affecting relationships, team dynamics, innovation, productivity and retention. Leaders who set their radar to detect imposter feelings in themselves and their team members, employ Conscious Leadership and foster a culture focused on DEI&B, will be on their way to red lighting imposter phenomenon, or at least slowing it down to yellow and eventually changing it to green.

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References:

1Caflishch K. Imposter syndrome: The truth about feeling like a fake. Aug 2020. https://asm.org/Articles/2020/August/Imposter-Syndrome-The-Truth-About-Feeling-Like-a-F Accessed 8/31/22.

2Cherry H. Leadership when you have imposter syndrome. Forbes Women, Feb 1, 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2021/02/01/leadership-when-you-have-imposter-syndrome/?sh=3cd6b9a97195 accessed 10/12/22

3Chow R. Don’t just mentor women and people of color. Sponsor them. Harvard Business Review, June 30, 2022 https://hbr.org/2021/06/dont-just-mentor-women-and-people-of-color-sponsor-them accessed 11/22/22

4Feenstra S, Begeny C, Ryan M, Rink F, Stoker J, Jordon J. Contextualizing the imposter “syndrome”. Front Psychol, 2020, 11: 575024.

5Palmer C. How to overcome imposter phenomenon. American Psychological Association, 2021, 52 (4) https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/cover-impostor-phenomenon accessed 8/31/22

6Tulshyan R, Burey J. End imposter syndrome in your workplace. Harvard Business Review, July 14, 2021 https://hbr.org/2021/07/end-imposter-syndrome-in-your-workplace accessed 8/31/22.

7Wilding M. 5 Fundamental things leaders can do to combat imposter syndrome. https://melodywilding.com/5-fundamental-things-leaders-can-do-to-combat-imposter-syndrome/ accessed 10/12/22


Jane Oeffner, PT, DPT, MBA

Jane Oeffner, PT, DPT, MBA, an APTA Private Practice member and Impact editorial board member, is the director, strategic clinical partnerships at Widener University in Chester, PA. She can be reached at jkoeffner@Widener.edu.

Copyright © 2018, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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