Leaders aren't immune to imposter syndrome: Advice

A Mayo Clinic survey found 25 percent of physicians experience "imposter syndrome," and leaders are not immune to the feeling.

Imposter syndrome is a feeling that accomplishments are inadequate and successes are undeserved or due to chance rather than personal effort, skill, ability or competence. People of all ages, races and experience can feel imposter syndrome.

Here, Becker's asked leaders to explain how they manage their imposter syndrome and tips for organizations on how to address this issue:

Deborah Block, MSN, RN. Chief Nursing Officer at Stephens County Hospital (Toccoa, Ga.): In order to manage or overcome, you first have to recognize and understand imposter syndrome. I attended a leadership seminar several years ago and was introduced to this concept. Once I learned more about it, I was able to incorporate into my own personal reflections to better understand some of my own feelings. More importantly, I've been able to consider this as a possibility for several of my leadership team as barriers to their success when either they or myself can't quite come up with what's holding them back. I feel like it helps to use myself as an example of having felt like the "imposter" as an avenue to create a more open dialogue and then identify ways to assist and support. Sometimes this discussion does really help to determine if someone is in the wrong seat on the bus but do so in a nonpunitive way. 

As senior leaders, we may need to initiate the conversations around imposter syndrome when we encounter leaders who are underperforming as a potential reason for why this is happening versus jumping to label them as poor performers and doing the wrong things to manage them. 

Eric Katz, MD. Chief Medical Officer at Banner Estrella Medical Center (Phoenix): The overriding approach I've used when facing "imposter syndrome" is to try to gradually disrupt the negative thinking. Most physicians presume they can "challenge" the feeling directly, and generally, that seems to be ineffective. Instead, I think back to my first night when I was an intern covering the critical care unit. I intentionally stood near the doorway, looked over the unit, and thought to myself, "Someone dumber than me has done this before and did it well." I did this two to three times and decided I could believe it. It sounds a bit silly, but I've repeated that process each time I feel like an imposter.

By gently dislodging a small piece of a lack of confidence, we make it possible to accept disruptions of the insecurity and fears. Imposter syndrome and insecurities are not prone to a quick fix. When I work with mentees, we focus on small steps leading to bigger ones, and this has shown positive effects. As part of our strategies, at Banner Estrella Medical Center we supply on-site, anonymous counseling to our medical staff and assign "onboarding buddies" and frequent "check-ins" that can also reinforce the capability of our new people. Despite these steps, imposter syndrome is still common and we hope to help our teams recognize that what they see is not what we see.

Julie Strittmatter. Vice President of Human Resources and Chief Human Resources Officer at St. Luke's Health (Houston): Self-doubt, or not trusting one's abilities to achieve a positive outcome, is a common challenge at many workplaces, especially when we step outside our comfort zones. Even the most confident and competent among us doubt themselves at times. A little self-doubt can motivate us to prepare more or to consider several solutions to a problem. Too much self-doubt, however, can stop us in our tracks, blocking us from doing things that are important to us.

At St. Luke's Health and CommonSpirit, we are fortunate to have Lyra, a mental health benefit with robust resources and lessons on coping with self-doubt. Lyra teaches us to recognize thinking traps, times when we treat our thoughts as facts. For example, all-or-nothing thinking is seeing things as either/or and not the in-between. Another example is emotional reasoning or interpreting situations primarily on how you feel. And there's discounting the positive by only paying attention to the negatives in a situation and ignoring the positives. When you find yourself in a thinking trap, take a moment to label it as such. This will help you recognize that your unhelpful thoughts are not facts and allow them to pass. 

We can also dial down self-doubt by keeping track of our accomplishments. Thinking traps make it hard to remember how far we've come and that it takes time for abilities to develop. Having a list of our wins at our fingertips can help us remember these perspectives. Try setting aside time each week to ask yourself, "What did I do well this week?" Write down or think about anything you did well. No win is too small! You can turn to this record the next time self-doubt is getting in your way.

Meera Udayakumar, MD. Chief Medical Officer at UNC Rex Health (Raleigh, N.C.): We should be asking why imposter syndrome occurs and why it is more common in women and minorities, especially in high-level leadership positions. Imposter syndrome does not occur because these individuals are lacking self-confidence or a particular skill. More likely, it is a result of societal stereotypes and bias. Additionally, lack of representation and diversity in certain fields reinforces the idea that individuals who do not fit the traditional mold do not belong.

I have been fortunate to participate in individual and group leadership training as well as coaching and mentoring during my time at UNC Health Rex. This has been valuable because I have learned about my own strengths, how to learn from my mistakes and the importance of having a positive work environment. At UNC Health Rex, the culture is inclusive and psychologically safe. One of our core values is that we are "One Great Team," which means we prioritize teamwork and inclusion. We see this value manifested in multiple ways. One of our goals has been to have teammates participate in training on reducing unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Additionally, the organization also actively seeks feedback on the work environment through multiple surveys, such as an equity and inclusion climate survey, interviews and forums. All of these actions lead to a supportive environment that makes it easier to overcome self-doubt and grow.

Michele Volpe. Chief Operating Officer for the University of Pennsylvania Health System (Philadelphia): I believe all genuine leaders experience or have experienced imposter syndrome during their career. Over the years I have found myself to use three interventions. The first is to openly discuss my concerns with someone I trust and respect, like a mentor. The second is to recount my successes over a recent time period, and the third is to remind myself that it is OK to question yourself as this introspection will always lead to personal growth.

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