This belief is known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’, a term which was first termed in the late 1970s.
Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study, or what external proof they may have of their competence, those expressing the 'syndrome' remain convinced that they do not deserve the success they have achieved and will at some point be "found out".
It seems to affect women leaders significantly more than men and if this is true it would seem valuable to understand more about it. Imposter Syndrome expert Valerie Young says that it is not about low self-confidence but about chronic self-doubt. Why might this affect women more?
As a psychology undergraduate many years ago I researched the snappily titled “gender differences in the attribution of success and failure”. It would seem to be relevant – here’s what this area of research suggests: men and women significantly differ in how they account for success and failure. Women tend to attribute their success to external factors outside of their control (e.g. "the task was easy", "I was lucky") and attribute their failure to internal factors ("I didn’t work hard enough", "I was not sufficiently competent"). Men on the other hand are significantly more likely to do the reverse, attributing success to internal factors, and failure to external factors outside of their control. This has been repeated a number of times and these findings are consistently found across many cultures. My own research looked to establish the age at which this difference might be seen and found clear evidence of it among 6 year olds…
What are the implications for women leaders and indeed for those of us who coach them? I am interested for example in how using cognitive behavioural coaching and examining core beliefs might help in this area.
We’d love to hear from you – what are your experiences?
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