We all feel self-doubt occasionally, such as right before making a big presentation or when asking for a raise. Some people, however, feel it constantly despite their successes — and imposter syndrome goes even deeper than that.
Bauback Yeganeh Ph.D, a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and founder of the leadership consulting firm Everidian, spoke with b. about why lack of confidence is so widespread among high achievers and how to overcome it.
b.: Why would someone in a leadership position — who has proven they can do their job successfully — struggle with self-doubt?
Yeganeh: Leaders’ standards for performance are among the highest in our population. A lot of leaders are either inherently competitive … or link their self-worth to some sort of performance outcome.
Self-doubt, especially imposter syndrome, is very common among executives. Nobody is in these positions for the majority of their [professional] lives. You are not at the top of the chain until you get that job. So there’s going to be a transition there, right? It is common for anyone entering a new learning environment to wonder, “Am I going to be good enough?”
If you really want to get at where it comes from, you have to look at evolutionary theory. Many of our worries are … rooted in natural evolution, including fears of inadequacy. If, for example, you’re not good at sharpening hunting tools … you’re not going to provide, you’re not going to be competitive, and you’re not going to survive.
b.: If self-doubt is meant to protect us, could it be an advantage for leaders? Is there a healthy amount?
Yeganeh: It can really vary to degrees of toxicity. Self-doubt is, “I don’t think I’m good enough to do this.” Self-assessment is, “What are my strengths? Where do I have room to grow?”
So, maybe the easiest way to repurpose that energy is to ask a more productive question [that] can shift you into planning and action, and away from worry. … This kind of rumination has gotten you stuck on autopilot in a way that isn’t helpful. If you’re stuck in this evaluative negative mindset, the work is to calm brain activity.
b.: What are the risks of not having any self-doubt?
Yeganeh: There are a lot of complaints among leadership about younger generations in the workforce who have false positive assessments of their competence. Like, “Why wouldn’t you double-check your work on these reports? Are you so great that you don’t need to review and improve your work before submitting it?”
It comes up all the time. These leaders love when younger employees do well with feedback, embrace the learning process, want to collaborate. They feel frustrated when anyone thinks they can take the lead on anything, which is not always true.