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A little feeling with a big impact: How to harness imposter ‘syndrome’ as a superpower

By Ella Walton, Senior Marketing & New Business Manager

M&C Saatchi Group

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November 3, 2023 | 8 min read

Is ‘imposter syndrome’ a misnomer for something we all experience – and ‘imposter phenomenon’ a little fairer? The researchers originally associated with the term think so, as does Ella Walton of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.

A pile of fancy masks, of the kind associated with Venetian balls

Imposter syndrome - or imposter phenomenon? / Llanydd Lloyd via Unsplash

“You mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you” sings Roald Dahl’s (or Tim Minchin’s) Matilda.

And she’s right. But ‘little’ is no small feeling. It can have an enormous impact on the way we feel and perform, particularly at work.

In agencies, it’s a feeling which accompanies a well-trodden, well-known experience, more commonly called imposter syndrome.

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What is imposter syndrome?

Familiar to many, imposter syndrome is the feeling which grows from the gap between how we perceive ourselves and the external self we present to the world around us. It’s the feeling that we’re about to be found out and exposed as inadequate, and it floods our industry.

Internally, it’s easy to view ourselves under the spotlight of insecurities and mistakes. We size up our ability and right to be in the room according to our weakest traits, playing over and over the greatest hits of our weakest moments.

Yet to the rooms in which we’re seen, the exterior we present is a far more collected and coherent picture than the one we paint inside; to others, your voice is valuable, and you bring something unique to the conversation which no-one else could.

The challenge comes when we listen to the voice of the imposter, rather than the voices of those championing us to be in the room, at the table, to be heard and seen.

So, how do we harness the power of this shared experience and use it to propel us forward, not hold us back? And how, as agencies, can we nurture workplace cultures that support every person to thrive?

‘An experience rather than a pathology’

My biggest learning recently was that imposter syndrome isn’t really a syndrome at all. Instead, it was first introduced as a ‘phenomenon’ intended to normalize the feelings many experience. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes first coined the term “impostor phenomenon” when they published “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in 1978. In an interview with The New Yorker, Clance herself calls out the importance of the language we use to identify it - the phenomenon is “an experience rather than a pathology”.

It might be a small shift in language, but it transforms the way we think and talk about ‘impostering’. Where a ‘syndrome’ diagnoses, a ‘phenomenon’ empowers; it allows us to harness the feeling as a shared experience used to unite us, rather than labeling a feeling of insecurity and self-doubt. By rethinking the category of imposter ‘syndrome’ and the language we use to talk about it, we normalize the feeling and form common ground upon it.

It follows that the remedy isn’t greater success, but greater connection with one another, and the experiences we share. One of the most powerful rooms I’ve been in was a training on the imposter phenomenon. I couldn’t tell you what I expected to find when I walked into the room, but it wasn’t seats filled with some of the most senior people in the business. This didn’t look like a room of imposters; it looked like a room of leaders and people I hugely admired and looked up to.

Before a single word was spoken, the power of the imposter phenomenon was broken and a common, human connection was formed. If this room of leaders and pioneers experienced a feeling of ‘impostering’, it must be a feeling we can all experience, not a true reflection of our right to be in the room. The first step for agencies to support their people is to open up this conversation in the first place.

An imposter’s progress

That room also taught me that ‘impostering’ isn’t fixed by progression.

It’s easy to think that if we just reach the next rung of the ladder, the ‘imposter phenomenon’ might begin to subside. But scanning the room, and the titles at the table, this clearly wasn’t the case.

Some of the most senior people around that table talked of constantly battling their inner imposter voice. And no wonder. Progression often feeds our sense of imposter phenomenon, for a season at least. In fact, as we step up and step into places that feel new and challenging, it’s unsurprising that the inner imposter raises its voice.

Discomfort is fertile soil for growth; when we’re planted there, we can nurture a self-belief which reflects the confidence others see and affirm in us. As agencies, it’s here that we must make the safe spaces for people to fail, recognizing failure as part of the process of growth and supporting people through the journey.

So instead of resenting this not-so-little feeling, what if we instead hold tight to two beliefs with the potential to transform how we perceive it and channel it for the good of our people and cultures.

First, the remedy isn’t greater success, but greater connection with one another and the experiences we share. It’s essential that as agencies we facilitate safe spaces for conversation and openness.

And, second, hold onto the truth that imposter phenomenon is the natural accompaniment, if not catalyst, for growth.

Let its very presence serve as a reminder that you are growing. And that your voice is not so little after all.

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