Imposter syndrome has gotten media attention amid the increasing focus around emotional wellbeing. Although imposter syndrome is not an official psychiatric disorder according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), in extreme cases it can result in diagnosable conditions such as anxiety and depression. But many professionals – particularly high achievers – have feelings of inadequacy that while described as imposter syndrome are normal feelings of self-doubt that can be positive. Such emotions often inspire individuals to challenge themselves and achieve more. Harnessed in a healthy way, it can be a driving force for innovation.
People experiencing imposter syndrome believe they are lesser than others believe them to be and are consumed by dread that this will be discovered. They see successes as the result of good luck and not as the result of their own skill and performance.
In extreme cases, sufferers can use cognitive behavioral therapy to combat the challenge of imposter syndrome by putting into perspective feelings of being a fraud. And just as cognitive behavioral therapy teaches us to change the way we think about our anxieties, we can similarly change the way we think about self-doubt – viewing it as normal and necessary to succeed in innovating and changing.
In a recent LinkedIn post, Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant writes, “Imposter syndrome isn’t a disease. It's a normal response to internalizing impossibly high standards. Doubting yourself doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It usually means you’re facing a new challenge and you’re going to learn. Feeling uncertainty is a precursor to growth.”
Isn’t doubt a tool we use every day as innovators to challenge critical assumptions? Don’t we tackle challenges amid uncertainty and ambiguity every day? And wouldn’t we rather be at peace with failure and fail fast to avoid spending unnecessary time on a non-viable idea? The answer is yes, and we can apply these skills to our own self-doubt as well.
Tyler Cowen, George Mason economist and co-author of the book Talent, advises leaders and managers to focus on employees experiencing imposter syndrome as they are likely the most driven to get the right answer, solve problems and take a truly comprehensive view of their work.
Employees experiencing self-doubt are often less narrow-minded than employees who seem to know everything. An employee who is overly confident or certain may not think broadly enough to consider all they might not know and all the potential pitfalls.
Your best innovators are likely aware of “known unknowns” – things we know we don’t know and need to figure out. But your employees experiencing self-doubt are also keenly aware of (and anxious about) the likely existence of “unknown unknowns” – things we don’t know we don’t know. The latter are probably experiencing some level of imposter syndrome and a greater level of stress. They’re trying to prepare for what will happen and what could happen.
When it comes to innovation, some of the best innovators and innovation team leads experience self-doubt:
With a little encouragement and the right messaging (and undoubtedly a fair amount of bravery), innovators with self-doubt can become some of the strongest contributors, driven to succeed while thinking of and preparing for a multitude of risks along the way. They just need help overcoming it.
To use your self-doubt for good, reframe it and act on it:
If you’re not feeling self-doubt amid uncertainty, chances are you are too comfortable and not doing something that really challenges you. A little self-doubt can be healthy to push you to take on new challenges and grow. Obviously, that’s easier said than done. To get started, work on cultivating your growth mindset. This is a mindset that embraces change, strives for constant improvement and believes in the ability of individuals to develop, learn and grow.
When you’re feeling like an imposter and doubting your intellectual abilities, try viewing your doubt as an opportunity for growth and imagine all you can achieve.