Imposter Syndrome: The Silent Threat to Team Performance [Episode 037]

There's a lot of talk about Imposter Syndrome these days, but did you know it doesn't just impact individuals, it can harm teams too?

In fact, when someone gets promoted to the level where their old coping strategies for Imposter Syndrome stop working, it can turn their team toxic in just a few weeks, and no one realises what's happening until performance drops or people start to quit.

Want to know the 4 reasons why Imposter Syndrome is a silent threat to team performance, even if hardly anyone in your team is running it? (Psst! 62% are...)

This is for you if you're a line manager, HR professional, business leader, Mental Health First Aider, coach, therapist, or simply someone who cares and wants to be able to help others to thrive, showing up as all of who they really are, and have the impact their ideas and dreams deserve.

What You'll Discover Today

  • What Imposter Syndrome is - and the difference between it and self-doubt
  • How it impacts individuals
  • The four silent threats to teams
  • How it affects team members even if they're not running Imposter Syndrome
  • 4 key archetypes to look for
  • The impact on performance reviews and feedback
  • How you can handle this, as a line manager, HR professional, Mental Health First-Aider, or coach / therapist - plus a free instant access masterclass to help you with this

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Note: this is an AI-generated transcript, so please forgive typos.

Welcome to Episode 37 of the Ditching Imposter Syndrome podcast with me, your host, Clare Josa. And today, we are looking at why imposter syndrome is a silent threat to team performance, even if hardly anyone in your team is running imposter syndrome. This is for you if you are a line manager, a business leader, HR professional, mental health first aid, coach, therapist, or someone who cares and wants to be able to help others to clear imposter syndrome so that they no longer have to self sabotage, to release their anxieties, so they can show up as all of who they really are and have the impact their ideas and dreams deserve. So one of the really brilliant things that shifted over the last few years is I'm seeing much less of business leaders just thinking people need to pull on their big girl pants, pull their socks up, and push on through imposter syndrome. It's starting to be understood that this is something that has a huge impact on individuals. But most people don't realise the harm it can cause teams, how it can turn a previously thriving team toxic in just a few short weeks, even if hardly anyone in the team is actually experiencing imposter syndrome.

The research study I've been running for the last few years has shown there is a causal link between imposter syndrome and burnout. The link to the white paper on that research study, by the way, is in the show notes. Go and have a read if that's your thing. There's some absolutely amazing stats in there. Plus I talk about how our research has informed the model, the three pillars of burnout and imposter syndrome, and actions you could start taking today to make a difference in your organisation on this. And what we're going to cover in today's episode is what imposter syndrome is and the difference between it and self doubt, how it impacts individuals, an overview, the silence threat to teams, how it affects team members even if they're not running imposter syndrome, four key archetypes to look out for amongst your team members and colleagues, the impact on performance reviews and feedback, and how you can handle this as a line manager, HR professional, mental health first-aid or coach therapist, or concerned friend, plus a free instant access master class, I am gifting you to help you on this. Here's the thing. The risk of doing nothing about this, pretending that imposter syndrome will go away is burnout.

One of the biggest risks, as I said just now, our research has found there is a causal link. Increase imposter syndrome, increase burnout. Reduce imposter syndrome, reduce burnout. One in nine people, according to our research, is considering quitting their job every single day due to burnout. We cannot keep ignoring this. Another effect is lost ideas and creativity. My research study shows only 11% of people feel fully confident speaking up with their ideas. That's actually quite shocking. If you look around a room, you wouldn't think it's that low, would you? Everybody else is pushing on through the fear or toning their ideas down to be more Beige and less Marmite. Visibility is another really big thing. If somebody's given an opportunity to shine and be visible for 42% of your team members, this will be a major trigger for imposter syndrome. My 2019 research study showed that it's one of three driving factors in the gender pay gap. It's a key reason why your rising stars quit, usually very unexpectedly, and they never, ever say in the exit interview, Oh yeah, it was my imposter syndrome. It also affects performance and productivity. 49% are using procrastination, for example, as a coping mechanism for imposter syndrome, at least once a day.

So what is imposter syndrome? I describe it as the secret fear of being found out is not good enough or somehow a fraud, despite external world evidence that you are doing really well. And in my training and programmes, and when I'm training master coaches, we talk about it being the secret fear of someone judging us the way we're judging ourselves. And if you've not come across my imposter syndrome iceberg model before, it's worth checking out the link in the show notes for that, because that explains how our confidence and self doubt, that's quite a long way towards the surface. It's just below the surface, but that is about what we can and can't do. Our skills, capability, knowledge, network. Imposter syndrome, however, is at the very bottom of the iceberg. Our sense of identity, our sense of self, who we think we are. This is why the self talk around imposter syndrome is often things like, who am I to do that? What if they find me out? What if they realise they made a mistake hiring me? It's about who we see ourselves as being. The other thing that's really important, and when I run training for line managers and HR professionals and mental health first aid is on this, it's something we cover in detail, is being able to spot the difference between self doubt and imposter syndrome, even if your team member can't.

Because when it's self doubt, sending them on a skills or knowledge based training course will fix the problem. They will see that they can do this. Their confidence will improve, problem fixed. If you do that for someone running imposter syndrome, it will help, but it won't clear that secret fear of being found out is not good enough because that's actually independent of our actual skills and capabilities. It's down there at the identity level. So then they need a different intervention. They might still need that skills or knowledge based training course. But if they've not dealt with the imposter syndrome triggers, it is still going to come out to play. So how does this impact individuals? From my research, we've got the model I call the 4Ps of imposter syndrome. These are perfectionism, procrastination, project paralysis, and people pleasing. They are super common coping strategies to succeed despite imposter syndrome. You can already imagine with perfectionism, procrastination, project paralysis, and people pleasing, you can be running one or four. Lots of people run or fall when imposter syndrome is severe. This really impacts productivity. It's going to affect performance. It's going to start to have a ripple effect beyond just the team member who's struggling with imposter syndrome, as we'll cover in a moment.

All of these, you can imagine how they lead to burnout because it means things take more time. Particularly with perfectionism, for example, a warning sign is someone suddenly working masses of overtime that seems disproportionate to the work that they're actually being asked to do. Likewise, for procrastination, they seem incredibly busy, but they're not making progress. Project paralysis is classic rabbit in headlights, stuck in fear, ignoring that project completely until they can use the adrenaline of the deadline to push on through the fear. People pleasing, it's taking on stuff that doesn't belong to you, changing your priorities at every meeting that you go to, saying yes when it should secretly be a no, and then often very secretly resent the other person afterwards. Let's look at how this can affect team members. Even if those team members are not struggling with imposter syndrome themselves, somebody running imposter syndrome, running that secret fear of others judging us the way we're judging ourselves, is likely to be spending a lot of time in what's called the fight flight freeze response from the sympathetic nervous system. This overlays with that 4 P's model. The perfectionism is the fight. I am going to slay that project.

I am going to beat that goal. So you can imagine how they suddenly start to drive other members of the team around them to also have that fight response. With procrastination, that's the person who is letting everybody down on deadlines. They just seem too overwhelmed and busy. Everything ends up having to be a no, or even later working hours. And that can really have an impact on team productivity. The project paralysis. Well, most businesses do not thrive on pulling all nighter to get something done. And the people pleasing means that particularly in a line manager or a leadership role, the team never knows what their priorities are. They shift and change based on who it was that that line manager wanted to please in the latest meeting that they were in. So these 4 P's are examples of coping strategies people use to succeed despite imposter syndrome. There are also loads of ways that people self sabotage. But for today's episode, I really want to focus on the impact on the wider team. So somebody else's imposter syndrome affects the wider team in four core ways. It affects productivity, as we've just briefly covered. If you've got a member of the team that's running perfectionism, procrastination, project paralysis, or people pleasing, or all four, that is going to have a knock on impact for everybody who's got tasks to do that rely on that person.

You can imagine how quickly that can descend into chaos as other people then start having to adapt their behaviour and workload to compensate for the imposter syndrome coping strategies. It affects performance because the team is going to struggle to thrive. When I look at the research stats for the study we're running, we've been running it for five years now, it's currently 62% of respondents are struggling with imposter syndrome daily or regularly. That really hits their personal performance hard. And if you've got 62% of your team members feeling that way daily or regularly, and not once in a while, this is their normal, that is going to really impact what the team can achieve together. The individual performance will then hurt the team performance, not to mention the impact of the coping strategies. It affects people. It affects the relationships within the team. When you've got somebody running imposter syndrome with that fight-flight-freeze response, one of the options people can subconsciously choose is fight. That means that somebody might get quite defensive, or if they're running perfectionism, they might be quite critical. If they're people pleasing, people might find them utterly frustrating as priorities change, or they might lean on them more than it's fair, causing anxiety and burnout for that person.

I've seen over the last 20 years of specialising in this field, how often, for example, promoting a rising star who's running imposter syndrome, can turn their new team toxic in just a few weeks as they pass on their imposter syndrome coping strategies. And we also know with lost ideas and creativity, performance, productivity, everything else that goes with imposter syndrome, this has a really measurable impact on the bottom line. One of the really big things someone running imposter syndrome is likely to do is to struggle to speak up when they've got a great idea that maybe is a bit edgy, or when they see something that's wrong. So you end up with groupthink and wasting months and millions on a project that a member of your team knew wasn't going to work and they knew how to fix it, but they held back due to imposter syndrome. There are four key archetypes that can really help you to look for here. So the first one I'm going to call the micromanager. This is somebody who's running perfectionism really strongly on the 4 P's of imposter syndrome. They've always been driven to excel, perhaps. They've been promoted multiple times, but recently they're feeling like they're not good enough.

One promotion too many, so that bridge of coping strategies, as I call it, that runs when we're running imposter syndrome and want to be successful despite it is no longer enough. They'll worry that their team might discover they're not as competent as they think that they are. As a result, they begin to micromanage every aspect of their teamwork, double checking every detail, reviewing every email, disempowering the team without even realising that's what they're doing because no decision can be made without going through them. This really creates a toxic working environment, leads to low morale and poor team performance. And it is because the fear coming from the perfectionism, yet it has to be perfect so I won't be found out, is being subconsciously passed on to the team. Architect number two, the reluctant contributor. Remember what I said earlier, only 11% of people feel fully confident speaking up with their ideas in meetings. That's 89% who don't. This might be somebody who's been with the company for years. They've got a wealth of experience and knowledge, but they struggle with speaking up with their ideas. They're hesitant to contribute to team discussions, or it takes a huge amount of courage triggering a fear response.

The problem here is if they're sitting there in the fear response, there's something that happens in the brain to reroute the blood flow to the primal part of the brain when we're in fear, when we're in fight-flight-freeze, when we're in stress, that means that in something like a brainstorming session, we're not going to come up with the great ideas that we would do if we were happy and relaxed and not feeling anxious. These people might have fantastic ideas, but they won't contribute them. There's actually a podcast episode I did recently that's really worth you looking at on this if it's an issue for you is why we don't speak up in meetings. There is a link to that one in the show notes. It's really worth a listen. It's Episode 33 of the Ditching Imposter Syndrome podcast. Why does imposter syndrome make your mind go blank in meetings? The third archetype I want to talk about today is the insecure teammate. This is somebody who is maybe working on a challenging project. They're feeling the pressure to deliver. They're struggling with imposter syndrome and worrying that they're either not contributing enough to the team or that they don't belong.

Look, today might be the day their luck finds out and people kick them off the team. This insecurity means that they can find it very hard to process information. They can end up in paralysis, struggling to make decisions and recommendations. They can feel insecure, which can lead them to hold information and work in isolation instead of collaborating with their teammates. Plus, if they're doing that fight flight freeze and they're hitting the fight response, which is an unconscious thing, we don't sit there and consciously think, Hey, I'm going to run from this, or I'm going to bop someone on the nose. It can actually lead to their insecurity, that pain they're feeling inside being projected onto team members. They're likely to be at risk of being quite critical and difficult to get on with. The insecure teammate can mean that the lack of communication and collaboration causes the team to miss out on opportunities to learn from each other, to make informed decisions, impacting performance and team dynamics. Then the fourth archetype today is the quitting, rising star. Imposter syndrome can cause your rising stars to quit, and it's often a bit of a shock, even though they might have been working on quitting for months, whether or not they're running imposter syndrome.

So one of the biggest reasons why people will decide to come and work with me or one of my master coaches is a promotion has come up that was one step too far for their imposter syndrome coping strategies. If people don't have access to support to clear imposter syndromeand they realise their coping strategies aren't enough, it can lead to huge anxiety. And a real trigger flashpoint for this is actually, for example, women returning from maternity leave, or as they say, people getting promoted or being offered to stretch opportunity. Sometimes it's easier to jump ship if you don't know how to fix the way you're feeling. I know from personal experience this is exactly what I did back in 2001, which ended up being the catalyst for the work I've done over the last 20 years. But your rising stars will never say in the exit interview, Oh yeah, and that was imposter syndrome. The other reason imposter syndrome can cause rising stars to quit if they are not running it themselves is they simply can't handle being in this toxic team anymore. They don't want to be in a position where they've got to be micromanaged, where they're not trusted to make decisions, where they struggle with teammates who aren't delivering on time or who are passing their own stress on.

They decide to go somewhere voting with their feet where the culture, the environment, and the way the team thrives allows them to be all of who they really are rather than constantly being on the defensive. Those are the four archetypes I wanted to talk about today. The micromanager, the reluctant contributor, the insecure teammate, and the quitting, rising star. There is another way, though, that imposter syndrome is a silent threat to team performance and dynamics, and that's feedback. In the research studies I've been running, I don't know if you knew this, but 77% of line managers dread giving performance reviews. 71% of those on the receiving end, even if they're offered praise, this is positive feedback, 71% will volunteer a butt and self criticism, either in their head or out loud. They find it really hard. They're waiting for the but because that's what their inner dialogue is doing to them each and every day. 82% struggle daily with comparing themselves to others and judging themselves. Even positive feedback is going to trigger them comparing and self judging. If we get constructive criticism, the number who get really wobbled by that and have an internal, very strong emotional response that can last months is 80%.

80%! 80% are really wobbled by constructive criticism. So how on earth do you give feedback to help performance improvements without triggering that? Well, if you want to know, I have a free scorecard for you on feedback mastery. I also run inhouse training programs for line managers and consulting on how to redesign your performance review systems and your appraisal systems so that they don't trigger imposter syndrome because things like the feedback sandwich makes it so much worse. It's that but in the middle, it's awful. Please put that straight in the bin. Contact me if you'd like to find out more about how we could potentially work together on this on feedback, but go and take my free feedback mastery scorecard now if you're a line manager or an HR professional to see how savvy you are on this and whether you've fallen for any of the myths and it gives you a free personalised action plan so you can start creating shifts in this already today. So that is a whistle stop tour on how imposter syndrome can be a silent threat to your teams. I really hope you found that useful. And if you're someone who's sitting there thinking right now, do you know what?

I really actually want to take action on this. How can I support people with imposter syndrome, preventing burnout without having to turn into a therapist? I have a free 60 minute Masterclass for you. Instant access so you can watch it at a time that works for you that guides you through exactly this. A bit more detail on how to spot the warning signs and the impact, and then practical things you can start doing today to be able to help people in your teams with imposter syndrome. Because I want to let you in on a secret. As a line manager, it's not your job to be able to help someone to fix imposter syndrome. It's specialist work, but it is incredibly important to be able to spot the warning signs and get people the support they need to clear this before it affects your teams. And if it's part of you that's sitting there going, but, Clare, I actually want to do this level of work, I want to be able to help people in my teams or my clients to deeply ditch imposter syndrome, then make sure you get a place on the public access round of my certification program, Imposter Syndrome First-Aiders.

It runs twice a year, or you can run it in house for line managers, HR professionals, mental health first aiders. And if you're already an experienced coach or therapist, then the program you want to be on, which is application only and you have to have done the First-Aid program first, is my Imposter Syndrome Master Coach program. Both of these certification programs are accredited by the UK Institute of Leadership and Management and they entitle you to full membership of the Institute as well. If you like to collect post nominal letters after your name. So that is the First-Aid and the Master Coach program. Go and grab your place on that today for the First-Aid. Go and apply today for the Master Coach. The links for those are in the show notes. Have an amazing week and I will be back next time answering another imposter syndrome question.

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About the author

Clare Josa

Clare is considered a global authority in the fields of Imposter Syndrome, burnout and toxic resilience, and has been an international keynote speaker for over 20 years.

The author of 8 books, a reformed engineer and the former Head of Market Research for one of the world's most disruptive brands, she blends research-backed practical inspiration with demystified ancient wisdom, to help you create breakthroughs in ways that are fast, fun and forever.

Want to find out your Imposter Syndrome Score? Take Clare's free research-backed, quiz-style assessment and get your score plus a personalised action plan in the next 3 minutes.

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