Using a growth mindset to beat imposter syndrome
Everyone has moments of self-doubt, questioning if they have “what it takes” to succeed in a project or career change on the horizon.
“And don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise,” says 2021 Vistage Speaker Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Dr. Eve Meceda, a research psychologist and Growth Mindset expert.
For more than three decades, Dr. Meceda has worked with diverse leaders from all over the world. From that work, she has found that the only people who don’t experience feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt fall into one or more of these three categories:
- Those unwilling to admit their insecurities to others.
- Those unwilling to admit their insecurities even to themselves.
- Those who are raging narcissists.
“If you are human, sometimes you will doubt yourself. Sometimes with good reason — and sometimes not,” she says.
Despite the natural occurrences of questioning your abilities, this is often labeled as “imposter syndrome.” This gets tied to a mindset putting the responsibility on the individual to “fix it.”
The rise of imposter syndrome
The premise of “imposter syndrome” focuses on the individual and developing a mindset to help push away those feelings of “I’m a fraud.”
A 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the phrase to describe the self-doubt high-achieving women felt, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
More than 40 years later, “75% of female executives across industries reported they have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers,” October 2021 KPMG study.
However, Dr. Meceda believes the real problem lies not with the person but within systems that validate and reward only one antiquated type of leadership and success.
“Here’s the thing: ‘imposter syndrome’ is not an individual issue — it’s an organizational issue,” she says. “Increasingly, we’re realizing that if high-performing people are questioning their skills, worthiness, or success, it’s not because they’re abnormally insecure — it’s because they find themselves working or living within systems that actually do undermine their skills, worthiness, or success.”
By nurturing a “growth mindset culture,” organizations can help executives push away feelings of “I’m a fraud” so they can lead confidently.
Researcher Dr. Carol Dweck is considered the expert on the convergence of development, social and personality psychology and how people use those to create self-conceptions. She connects self-conceptions, their role in motivation and self-control, and their impact on success.
Dr. Meceda explained that as a result of this work, Dweck and her team identified two mindsets:
- Fixed mindset is the belief that skills and abilities are inherent traits (things you either have or don’t have). It often leads to the desire to prove yourself, fear of failure, resistance to feedback, and suboptimal performance.
- Growth mindset is the belief that skills and abilities are largely a result of learning and effort. It generally leads to high levels of effort, persistence, creativity, learning and performance.
“Much of my focus over the past decade has been on mindset, and it offers some paths forward for leaders who want to address imposter syndrome — and create cultures that attract and retain high performers,” she says.
Creating a culture of growth
Most leaders want their people to succeed in their role, feel confident about their work and stick with an organization. She says the key to achieving this is creating a culture that fosters a growth mindset from top to bottom.
“Our goal as leaders — in our companies, our communities, and our families — should not be to ‘fix’ individual feelings of inadequacy,” she says. “It should be to identify and dismantle the systems that foster those (generally unwarranted) feelings of inadequacy — often among our best performers.”
She offers these three strategies for doing so:
- Value genuine curiosity. Do this by modeling and behaviors such as asking good questions, considering alternative points of view, and being willing to learn from other people (and from one’s mistakes).
- Be absolutely ruthless about identifying and either upskilling or firing people, especially leaders, who are deeply entrenched in a fixed mindset.
- Become obsessed with fair and accurate informal feedback — including praise.
Explore for a deeper understanding
For leaders feeling insecure about their abilities, worth, or ability to succeed, Dr. Meceda suggests exploring the belief underlying the insecurity.
“If you find that the problem isn’t your actual performance — it’s an environment that unjustifiably questions, devalues, or undermines your performance — consider finding a better environment,” she says. “High performers always have options … especially in the current labor market. Find your people.”