Imposter Phenomenon – the unassertive fraud

Feeling like a fraud in the world of business is something many of us have experienced. The term for this, Imposter Phenomenon (IP), was coined in 1978 and was defined as: “A common experience that occurs when an individual, normally considered as a high achiever, undergoes an internal experience of self-doubt and feeling like an intellectual fraud or has fear of failure upon reaching milestones or achieving success.”

Our paper, Effects of the imposter phenomenon on measures of assertiveness in female professionals in South Africa, co-authored by Lyapa Nakazwe-Masiya, Karl Hofmeyr and myself, was based on GIBS MBA alumna Nakazwe-Masiya’s research which revealed some interesting insights into the phenomenon.

Initially Nakazwe-Masiya’s research sought to specifically look at the impact IP would have on the assertiveness of women in the workplace. Interestingly, it found that irrespective of race and gender 85.5% of South Africans will experience at least a moderate fear of failure and feel guilty about their success at some point in their career. The difference between men and women is that when it comes to assertiveness, there is a negative relationship between IP and the assertiveness of women.

The importance of this finding helps in the understanding of why women may be underrepresented in or are not conquering the boardroom. Assertiveness is a key trait of an effective leader and leadership development has a positive association with assertiveness. Research has found that female executives who can master the art of assertiveness have greater expectations of achievement and better coping mechanisms in their personal and professional lives. In contrast, women who lack assertiveness tend to be more negative and do not have the same drive to achieve. 

The impact of IP and a lack of assertiveness can, in fact, increase the risk that feeling like a fraud becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for women in leadership positions as it will ultimately impact their performance as leaders, which will then confirm them as imposters.

...they still fear not being worthy and question whether they are good enough to hold their position.

Assertiveness is a key trait of an effective leader...

Nakazwe-Masiya, consultant on C-suite and executive board placements in Africa for international leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder, has found “that there are many executives that grapple with the idea of being placed in senior executive roles in unfamiliar industries and functions. As much as they have the right skills and experience, and they have really worked hard to get to where they are, they still fear not being worthy and question whether they are good enough to hold their position.”

The underlying causes of IP, especially in women, may be varied. One thought is that it stems from childhood, where children who are not validated by families need to work harder to get approval and recognition from those families. It is also argued that women, minorities and marginalised members of society are socialised to expect to not advance at the same rates as their male counterparts. In other words, society has a low expectation of them succeeding. Some women have reported that success would require them to give up their feminine characteristics and that being assertive or smarter would leave a negative impression on their peers and colleagues.

Defining assertiveness              

In the context of this discussion, understanding the definition of assertiveness is important. Often, when women display assertiveness it is misconstrued as aggression. For the paper we looked at a few academic definitions and the relationship between IP and assertiveness, and then how these elements advance women at work.

The definition that we used describes assertiveness “as an element of emotional intelligence: an assertive personality is not only able to perform emotional reflection, which facilitates the understanding of one’s own feelings and emotions, but also one who is able to manage personal impulses, thereby exhibiting self-control and behaving in an appropriate manner and with appropriate dynamism.”

Assertive people have the ability to communicate their needs and desires. They are able to say no, and freely discuss their feelings, to form networks, as well as to initiate, maintain and conclude conversations. Being able to communicate assertively stands people in good stead as a leader. However, women who feel like imposters will veer away from assertive behaviour. The converse relationship between assertiveness and IP, our research predicts can lead to, and is not just related to, a negative impact on assertiveness.

Assertive people are perceived by their peers as more powerful in comparison to their passive colleagues and will tend to find themselves in more senior roles due to this behaviour, in their social networks too. However, women are typically conditioned to be passive and in the past typically operated in non-assertive roles. If women do find themselves in positions of leadership, they will often try and behave like their male counterparts and are viewed as aggressive rather than assertive.

Why do we need to take note?

The effects of IP can be significant. On a personal level IP can prevent people, both men and women, from climbing the corporate ladder and succeeding. Our paper notes that IP has been found to actually hamper career growth in all individuals (irrespective of race and gender) – even though our study focused on women and assertiveness. So although men are less likely to openly discuss the IP experience, and rather focus on the task on hand, it can also negatively impact their career progression.

However, when one looks at the macroeconomic impact of women not participating at executive level this is where it really starts to make business sense. We cited an interesting study in our paper: “A recent McKinsey study proposed that if women played an identical role to men in the global labour market and economy, as much as 28% could be added to the global GDP by the year 2025.” At a local level, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, an organisation which strongly pushes for greater female representation in senior positions, argues that unless South Africa can develop and retain high-calibre female leadership the country cannot hope to compete on the international stage.

Having diversity of thought, diversity of attitude and diversity of mindset have all been demonstrated to enhance decision-making, so diverse viewpoints optimise business decisions. At a macro level, inclusivity in the workplace would have a dramatic effect on the economy and South Africa’s global competitiveness. Unfortunately, South Africa is losing ground when it comes to female representation at board level, so although having female representation on boards and in professional roles has been on the agenda for business globally, it continues to be a South African challenge.

Stepping stones to inclusivity

Creating an environment of inclusivity in the boardroom is becoming increasingly important. However, for women to be able to be effective leaders and contribute, they need to be developed. Many women have the necessary skills and experience, but lack the courage to show up, and that is what limits them. And assertiveness is a key trait that needs to be developed for this to happen. So understanding IP and its effect on the performance of women becomes vital as businesses start to compete on a global playing field.

Our paper noted that, until now, organisations have an inherent gender bias. It is the result of being created by men for men. And although many may argue this is an unintentional consequence, the reality is that social practices are subtle and often insidious. These ‘social norms’ disadvantage women, and compromise their ability to function in the workplace effectively.

It is, therefore, imperative for businesses to create an environment that allows women to thrive, and do away with the proverbial ‘boys’ club’.

Action steps for business – creating an inclusive boardroom

Co-author of the paper on IP, Lyapa Nakazwe-Masiya is experienced in facilitating organisational change in her role so, together with the research, we offer some practical suggestions to help create female-friendly boardrooms:  

·       Change the representation of your boardroom. As the boardroom changes, advancing from one female director to three, the culture in that room is going to change. It will automatically modify the way people conduct themselves.

·       The boardroom should neither be considered a man’s world nor a woman’s world. It should be considered a businessperson’s world. By introducing more feminine qualities and traits into the space these behaviours will become more acceptable.

·       Encourage a more caring and empathetic mindset with stakeholders at the core of decision-making. Empathy is as important as a singular focus on the bottom line in order to create shareholder value.

·       Openly facilitate discussions around the issues facing women in the workplace. Getting top-tier men and women to freely discuss the issue of IP, as well as challenges facing women generally, can be an extremely productive way to encourage greater female participation at management level.  

·       Ensure assertiveness in women is perceived as that, assertiveness. All too often assertive women are viewed in a negative context. 

Action steps for women – defeating IP  

It is important for women and men to understand that feeling like an imposter is normal and is perfectly understandable. Lyapa Nakazwe-Masiya stresses that it is a common occurrence felt by driven and qualified executives. It is a global phenomenon that affects everyone. Women, however, need to be mindful of their approach to assertiveness in order to manage the imposter feelings.

Here are key takeaways from our experience and research to help women – and men – deal with the impact of IP: 

·       Try not to let IP get the better of you. When you understand that you are not alone in this feeling, you can then push through and still be confident and decisive. In other words, make sure you are perceived as worthy of that job – your role as top-tier management is to behave decisively and communicate your decisions clearly.

·       Psychologists suggest that assertiveness is a learnt skill. In addition, the Trait Theory of Leadership says good leaders display qualities which include extroversion, assertiveness, enthusiasm, agreeableness, openness and consciousness. It is essential for women to work on developing these traits.

·       Women need to realise that they bring something unique to the workplace. They need to own their space and their identity as women. Being authentic is essential.

·       Women need to be willing to adopt a ‘buddy system’ and look to support each other in the form of relating experiences, sponsoring each other and introducing each other to their personal networks. Like men, women need to start getting gratification from helping their female colleagues.   

·       Often when women get to a certain level in an organisation, they ‘shut down’ and feel like they have to carry on alone. They need to realise that they are not islands, and to get to the top they need to offer and leverage support from other women.

·       Talk about it. IP as an issue is very rarely talked about, yet it affects more than 85% of managers in the workplace. Offering platforms where IP can be discussed and action points can be put in place to result in change is a vital first step.

And Nakazwe-Masiya offers a final interesting insight for women: “And as environments change so do the attitudes of women. Women in male-dominated workplaces still initially rely on assertiveness because they are still trying to stamp their authority once rapport has been created, [but] women are more comfortable to focus on the softer side of their leadership skills, [so] they are better able to manage how they deal with different situations using their innate skill sets.”




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