The term “imposter syndrome” (IS) was first coined in 1978, but this psychological phenomenon of crippling self- doubt permeates workplaces even today – particularly among women professionals. In fact, a 2020 KPMG study reported that 75 per cent of female executives admitted to having personally experienced IS at certain points in their career, while 81 per cent believed that they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men do.
“IS generally shows up when people cannot seem to internalise their competence, even though there is external validation of their success,” explains Lai Han Sam, better known as Sam, a women’s life coach and founder of Lifework Global. “These feelings of inadequacy are persistent, and are coupled with self- talk that minimises their accomplishments.”
While it is natural to occasionally second-guess yourself or face insecurities at work, individuals who experience IS tend to feel more acutely that their achievements are undeserved, or that someone else is better qualified for the job.
When Shireena Shroff Manchharam started working as a consultant and trainer for banks and financial institutions, she recalls experiencing plenty of fear and self-doubt. “I didn’t have a masters or a PHD, nor did I go to a college as prestigious as London Business School. They would look at me and think, ‘You’re not a banker, so how would you be able to help me’?” shares the founder and principal consultant of Sheens Image Consulting, who also talked about IS in an episode of our podcast Her World Pow Wow*. “Imposter syndrome happened when I felt like I didn’t know if I could do something as well as somebody else, or when I didn’t know if I could even help my clients.”
Dr Suhina Singh, a medical doctor-turned-digital health strategist and investor, who’s also a #HerWorldTribe member, is no stranger to IS either. “To be honest, I only discovered what imposter syndrome was in 2012 when my close friends and colleagues told me that I had it. Looking back, I realise that I’ve had it my entire career, and still do,” she shares.
Being a hyper-critic
While this crisis of confidence plagues both men and women, the latter seem to experience IS on a much deeper level. This could be attributed to our own expectations of ourselves as a result of perfectionist tendencies, so we tend to be a lot more self- critical compared to our male counterparts, says Sam.
“Thoughts like ‘They are going to find out I am not that good’ or ‘I made so many mistakes’ reflect the expectations women have of themselves,” she says. “The constant strive for perfection, while juggling many roles as a professional, mother, wife, daughter or sister, adds to the burden of feeling like we are not good enough.”
A self-professed perfectionist and INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, and Judging) personality type, Dr Suhina says that competency is an integral trait she values. “As a result, I am continuously on the quest for knowledge, hoping that it will fill the void of self-doubt.”
To boost her self-confidence, Dr Suhina applied for an executive MBA programme at Insead, which helped give her the validation she needed for a career transition. “When I spoke to different investors, I found that they needed my input because they don’t have the in-depth experience in healthcare that I do. I actually knew more than I thought I did.”
(Here are “6 Ways To Fake Confidence At Work“)
As for the pursuit of perfection, Dr Suhina says: “It’s a vicious cycle of thinking ‘I don’t know everything, so I’m not competent enough to lead others’. But that’s not true, because if you look at a lot of leaders, no one knows 100 per cent of everything; they’re surrounded by a team with different abilities and technical expertise. You don’t need to be a walking encyclopaedia.”
For Race Wong, co-founder of proptech platform Ohmyhome, moments of self-doubt arose when her team grew bigger, from around 10 to 100 people. “We had a lot of upgrading to do in terms of the team structure, HR policies, business licences in different territories, communication channels, and more. I wasn’t familiar with these areas, and had to pick the right materials to read up on, while engaging lawyers to ensure that our policies are fair and proper,” says the #HerWorldTribe member.
“IS can arise at any time, but it can be more pronounced during times of success, and when others start to acknowledge one’s accomplishments,” says Sam. This is the great irony of IS – the more someone says you’ve done well, the more you deflect compliments or think that it was a stroke of luck, that you didn’t work that hard for it, or that you do not deserve such accolades. We end up diminishing or negating our own abilities and successes.
“You often hear women say, ‘It was a team effort’. However, in many instances, it is one’s astuteness, ability and leadership that led to the success. Some women have trouble acknowledging or accepting that. Common scenarios would be during project wrap-up sessions, getting praise from others in the workplace or perhaps even during a good performance review,” explains Sam. Shireena agrees, saying: “In our Asian culture, we don’t accept compliments very well and tend to blame luck or give credit to other sources, when we should really give credit to ourselves. When I do something well, I tend to say ‘no, no, no’, until a friend of mine told me, ‘Why can’t you just say ‘thank you’?”
Although we see more women in positions of power these days, it’s still more the exception than the norm, observes #HerWorldTribe member Sabrina Ho, who is the founder and CEO of Half The Sky, a career and headhunting platform for female professionals. “The higher you go, the fewer women you will see. For senior positions, maybe 10 per cent are women leaders.”
From a lack of female representation in the workplace to not wanting to be seen as overbearing, expectations arising from one’s gender can also contribute to feelings of self-doubt. Shireena says: “Women don’t want to come across as being too dominant or arrogant. A man who has these traits, though, is seen as confident.”
“As a boss, when I assert myself, I worry if my team will perceive me as aggressive or bossy,” Sabrina shares. “So I’m quite careful because bias still exists for female entrepreneurs and business owners.”
Organisations themselves also contribute to today’s confidence gap. “A lot of companies talk about diversity and inclusion, but while diversity is like being invited to a party where everyone is represented, inclusivity is like being asked to dance,” says Sabrina. “Does the company build an inclusive environment where everybody can speak up and say something, where everyone can be their true and authentic selves, in order to achieve their full potential?”
How to accept praise
Women’s life coach Lai Han Sam shares a simple three-step process to practise, till it becomes second nature:
Step 1: Accept the discomfort Due to our upbringing or value system, there may be discomfort when others praise us. Acknowledge and accept that feeling.
Step 2: Receive with grace Then, we proceed to receive the compliments or praise with grace. Remember, it is a gift from the other person. Accept it like you would accept a present. You don’t take a present and then immediately give to someone else. This is the same.
Step 3: Say thank you Thank the person who gave you the compliment or praise. There is no need to add or do anything else but that.