A new survey also found that women executives believe imposter syndrome to be common among women in corporate America.
Have you ever felt like a fraud? Like, everyone at the office treats you with respect and admires your hard work, but inside you feel artificial. It's as though you have no idea what you're really about, and all it would take is the whisper of a secret activation phrase to crumble your entire façade. Only, instead of revealing that you're secretly an awesome spy with the skills that kill, the phrase reveals a far more humbling reality: You suck.
If that sounds unsettlingly familiar—and it sure does for me—then you may have experienced imposter syndrome. People in the throes of imposter syndrome doubt their skills and accomplishments, worry their successes were the result of good luck, and fear being exposed as beguiling charlatans. This mental pattern, first known as "imposter phenomenon," was introduced in a 1978 study. For the study, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes interviewed more than 150 highly successful women and discovered a lack of internal acknowledgment to be prevalent.
In the 40 years since, American women have made incredible strides. They have managed successful companies, held some of the most powerful offices, and won recognition for pushing scientific boundaries. Yet, a new study released by KPMG LLP, a U.S. audit, tax, and advisory firm, suggests imposter syndrome remains as pernicious as ever.
Am I the great pretender?
For the study, KPMG polled 750 high-performing executive women across a range of industries. Each was a participant at the KPMG Women's Leadership Summit and was within promotional range of a C-suite position. These women had a proven work history of dedication, advancement, and achievement. No one could debate that these executives were anything but stalwart professionals—except, unfortunately, themselves.
Seventy-five percent of those polled reported having experienced imposter syndrome. Nearly half said those feelings originated from not expecting to reach their level of success and that it becomes lonelier at the top. Eighty-one percent believed they put more pressure on themselves than their male counterparts, leading to a consensus among participants that imposter syndrome is more common among women in corporate America. Three-fourths believed men do not experience feelings of self-doubt at the same level as women.
"It is important for organizations to gain a more thorough understanding of the specific issues women may face as they advance in their careers and as they move toward the C-suite. We hope the thought-provoking findings and solutions in this study help leaders everywhere as we work to further advance inclusion and diversity," KPMG CEO Paul Knopp said in a release.
The participants did recommend workplace dynamics to ease these burdensome feelings. About half received support from thoughtful performance managers, and a third from rewards and other recognitions of value. And 72 percent said they looked to a mentor or trusted advisor for help and advice when the doubt creeps in.
"It's important to realize that most women experience similar doubts at some point in our careers," Laura Newinski, KPMG's COO, said in the same release. "Our contribution as leaders is pivotal. Together, we have the opportunity to build corporate environments that foster a sense of belonging and lessen the experience of imposter syndrome for women in our workplaces."
KPMG published its results as part of its "Advancing the Future of Women in Business" report.
Fake it till you make it (to the moon)
Because the original study focused on highly successful women, there's been a misconception that only women suffer from imposter syndrome and the best remedy is for them to "just get over it." Neither is true.
Regarding the gender gap, there's been much back and forth in the research. Men certainly suffer from imposter syndrome, and some studies have suggested men may be more inclined toward it—at least under specific conditions. But due to social expectations and cultural norms, they may not be as open about it. Other studies have found women, especially women of color and those from the LGBTQ community, to be hit harder by imposter syndrome.
Thankfully, for both men and women, there are ways to diminish these fraudulent feelings of phoniness. Speaking with Time, imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young recommended reframing your thoughts. We can learn to be mindful of the disruptive thought, relabeling it as a feeling and not a reality. We can learn to appreciate constructive criticism, develop growth mindsets, and push ourselves to ask questions rather than holding back out of fear. And as KPMG's study showed, having a supportive person to speak honestly with can do wonders.
"The goal is not to never feel like an impostor. The goal for me is to give [people] the tools and the insight and information to talk themselves down faster," Young told Time. "They can still have an impostor moment, but not an impostor life."
Short of pathological narcissism, I imagine we all have our imposter moments. I think author Neil Gaiman illustrates this best in an anecdote. One night, Gaiman was chatting up a fellow Neil at a very important event filled with very important people who had done very important things. Like Gaiman, the elderly Neil felt he didn't belong in such a prestigious company. That Neil was, of course, Neil Armstrong.
As Gaiman put it so well: "And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren't any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for."
If you want flexibility, transparency, and decent health policies, it seems like working in tech pays off.
- The website Glassdoor has released their rankings of the top CEOs and companies to work for during the pandemic.
- The rankings were based on a study of reviews placed on their website by employees which mentioned COVID or CEO performance.
- The study isn't quite definitive, but offers an insight into what employees want during times of crisis.
The last time humanity faced an airborne pandemic was during the 2009 swine flu outbreak. It was a relatively mild one; it had a low death rate and reproduction number just above that of the seasonal flu. To find a globe-spanning, airborne pandemic of a more intense nature, one has to look back to the Hong Kong Flu of 1968.
With so much time between today and that pandemic, it is little wonder that some people outside the health care field were unprepared to deal with COVID-19. Despite this, many serious attempts were made by institutions, both public and private, to make it possible to remain safe while also still working and living with some degree of normalcy. The results have been mixed.
In an attempt to gauge how different companies did, the employer review website Glassdoor analyzed reviews of large companies' leadership during the pandemic. Their list of the top 25 employers in the United States and the top 10 in the United Kingdom offers a glimpse at what employees wanted from corporate leadership during the crisis, and who managed to provide it.
How to succeed in business when times are very trying
The survey considered recently submitted reviews about working for large companies that also included assessments of their leadership. Only reviews left between March 1 and July 31 were considered, with particular attention paid to high-quality reviews that focused on leadership's actions during the pandemic. Using these reviews, a scoring system was created to rank the companies and order them.
A quick review of the top companies shows about a third of them are in tech, with representatives from the world of finance, health care, and insurance also making appearances. Among the top-scoring companies was Zoom Communications and its CEO Eric Yuan, the company behind the video calling application that many people have recently turned to. The highest scoring company was Mercury Systems, an aerospace and defense technology company, and its CEO Mark Aslett.
The top ten:
- Mark Aslett — Mercury Systems
- G. Brint Ryan — Ryan, LLC
- Michael Weinstein — AIDS Healthcare Foundation
- Eric S. Yuan — Zoom Video Communications
- Stanley Middleman — Freedom Mortgage
- Aaron Levie —Box
- Corey Schiller & Asher Raphael — Power Home Remodeling
- Ben Salzmann — Acuity Insurance
- Jim Kavanaugh — World Wide Technology
- Michael Schall — Essex Property Trust
Few, if any, of the CEOs on the list are well known to the casual reader. The most famous is undoubtedly Mark Zuckerberg, who came in eighth on the list of UK employers. Only one woman made the list at all (BrightStar Care's Shelley Sun at number 17), perhaps reflecting the low percentage of large companies helmed by women. Likewise, only a handful of non-white men were to be found either, likely for similar reasons.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Glassdoor's Chief Economist Andrew Chamberlain explained that the reviews suggest that many of the top-rated companies shared "clear and transparent communication with employees about what is going on during a pandemic. Second, providing flexibility: work from home, giving workers the tools they need to keep doing their jobs. And third, polices that support health and safety of employees first."
A glance at the reviews used to compile the study supports this view, with many explicitly praising commitments to transparency and flexibility.
And now, the grains of salt
This survey considered only companies with more than 1,000 employees at the end of the review period, leaving out many excellently run but smaller operations. Of these larger enterprises, only those with more than 50 upper management (25 for firms based in the UK) were analyzed. Reviews made by interns were not counted towards this minimum. Companies that performed well, but with employees who didn't feel the need to write reviews of their employer on the internet, were left out of the running.
Despite these limitations, the study does offer an insight into what employees wanted from corporate leadership during the pandemic and who could provide it. Companies hoping to do better during the next public health crisis would do well to consider the choices made by these executives. Those looking for greener pastures might also consider applying to work at these places.
Big Think co-founder and CEO Victoria Brown breaks down the process of transitioning from founder to boss in her new book, Digital Goddess.
- In her forthcoming book, Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur, Big Think's founder and CEO, Victoria Montgomery Brown, discusses the challenges of transitioning from founder to boss.
- Part of the problem is that women may think they need to act like men in order to be successful.
- Brown offers four pieces of solid advice to not only survive but thrive on the way to becoming a CEO.
One of the hardest challenges in business might be transitioning from founder to CEO. This transition is especially difficult when you're a woman, writes Big Think's co-founder and CEO, Victoria Montgomery Brown, in her upcoming book, Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur.
Women are categorized differently than men in nearly every facet of business and life. In the chapter, "Boss Not B*tch," Brown calls out the stark differences in perception. Entrepreneurs are considered creative, innovative, and pioneering, while CEOs are powerful, controlling, and established. These labels are often attributed to the same person, however. How do we find a fairer representation, especially when contemplating the role of a female CEO?
Part of the problem, Brown writes, is that women think they need to act like men in order to be successful.
"I think that when women are insecure about their own leadership capacities or are convinced that to lead, they need to act like men, they inadvertently become their own worst selves. I've certainly fallen into that trap."
Brown spends the rest of the chapter describing how not to fall into that trap. Below are four methods to implement on the road to success.
Credit: Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images
Nurture your business
As Brown writes, women tend to be nurturers—a positive attribute for growing a business. In fact, female-led private tech startups have a 35 percent higher return on investment than male-led companies. That fact could at least in part be due to a nurturing attitude.
Not that Brown always toed that line. She originally adopted a command and control attitude—the wrong approach. She thought it was what she was supposed to do. Modern businesses adopt a militarized language, one quite suited to the male competitive temperament.
Rising above competition doesn't require a slaughter. Some people are better at jiu jitsu than taekwondo; both have a place. Brown believes command and control might work in the short term, but she's not convinced it's a sustainable approach.
"A business is not an army, and the concept of 'controlling' them will not get the best out of people."
In nurturing Big Think, Brown hired employees who shared the values of the company. As Simon Sinek recommends, she started with why, then found workers dedicated to that why. In the process, she found the best means for growing people's talent, not sticking them into a box and hoping they succeed.
Communicate openly and effectively
"Creating silos will kill you."
Companies that separate departments end up with groups of self-interested individuals. Self-interested workers inevitably follow a punishment and reward system. This is the reality experienced at many modern companies.
Brown points to research published in Harvard Business Review that found 95 percent of a company's employees don't understand the company's strategy. If you don't know your company's why (or how they're going to accomplish it), your daily workload is going to feel hollow.
Lack of communication is the nail in the coffin of startups. As Brown writes:
"If individuals are being rewarded solely on their own performance, they are motivated to take or use as much of the resources as they can, possibly to the detriment of the entire organism."
Communication is everything. Language is the coordination technology that helped humans collaborate and rise to the top of the animal kingdom. Keeping communication lines open is the key to survival on the savannah and in the conference room.
Tethered to communication is location. We might be temporarily working from home right now, but humans are social creatures. We need to share space. Office design matters.
Big Think's original office was rented in a shared space. Everyone was scattered: a desk here, a table there. This workflow created a lot of miscommunication within groups and especially between departments.
When transitioning into their current offices, Big Think cofounders Brown and Peter Hopkins claimed the conference room, which was separated by glass doors from the rest of the crew. The team was united, but this single partition created its own problems.
"They were less likely to come and talk with us because it seemed more formal."
Employees also felt awkward asking to use the conference room for meetings given the fact that Brown and Hopkins were usually inside. While Brown was initially disturbed by the suggestion of joining the rest of the team, she realized it was the proper strategy.
"I've found that people, whether employees or partners, clients or our experts, respect the CEO or founder when they get down in the dirt."
Brown also realized that the concept of being "in charge" is stupid. She advises making yourself available for everyone in the organization. Don't be walled off and unapproachable. Even interns have a stake in your company. Understanding that is essential for long-term success.
"The better you relate, the better you will communicate, but if you are separate you cannot actually relate."
Flexibility is key
As PayPal cofounder Reid Hoffman details in Blitzscaling, the company had to change its "always free" model to "ACH always free." Credit card fees were eating up their bank account. PayPal famously iterated numerous times before finding success. If they hadn't, Hoffman admits the company wouldn't have lasted.
Brown had a similar experience with Big Think. The website originally relied on sponsorship and advertising. A few years in, they pivoted to creating products for the corporate and educational space. Then they pivoted again.
As she writes, a company's mission might not change, but the strategies for achieving it will.
"Repeating something that worked in the past will often lead to failure."
In life and business, flexibility is key. Kodak famously lost out on the digital camera market. Jeff Bezos asked Duracell to white label batteries for Amazon. When the battery giant scoffed at the notion, Bezos found another company to do it—and it now owns 98 percent of the market.
Thankfully, Big Think is still here. That's in large part thanks to Brown watching cultural and business trends and course correcting when necessary. She admits it's never easy. By staying involved with your team, getting dirty with them, and nurturing the talent around you, you're more likely to succeed.
Most importantly, you can do it on your own terms, not those predetermined by a male-dominated business world.
Video bonus: 8 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way So Other Entrepreneurs Don't Have To
Get an exclusive online course with Big Think founder Victoria Montgomery Brown, only when you preorder the new book Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur.
Starting and running a business takes more than a good idea and the desire to not have a boss.
- Anyone can start a business and be an entrepreneur, but the reality is that most businesses will fail. Building something successful from the ground up takes hard work, passion, intelligence, and a network of people who are equally as smart and passionate as you are. It also requires the ability to accept and learn from your failures.
- In this video, entrepreneurs in various industries including 3D printing, fashion, hygiene, capital investments, aerospace, and biotechnology share what they've learned over the years about relationships, setting and attaining goals, growth, and what happens when things don't go according to plan.
- "People who start businesses for the exit, most of them will fail because there's just no true passion behind it," says Miki Agrawal, co-founder of THINX and TUSHY. A key point of Agrawal's advice is that if you can't see yourself in something for 10 years, you shouldn't do it.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.
Women today are founding more businesses than ever. In 2018, they made up 40% of new entrepreneurs, yet in that same year, they received just 2.2% of all venture capital investment. The playing field is off-balance. So what can women do?
They can get candid with each other. In this Big Think Live session, Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, and Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, will discuss entrepreneurship, decision-making, and leadership lessons from Victoria's new book, Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur. The book is a raw and real roadmap for any woman who has ever thought about striking out on her own, and will empower you to get meetings, raise money, and make hard choices—and never get so serious that you can't still have fun doing what you love.
Victoria Montgomery Brown has built and run Big Think for the last 12 years. It's become the leading digital media knowledge company, making people and companies smarter and faster with the world's best thinkers and doers. It wasn't a venture-funded tech darling, born and raised in a Silicon Valley incubator. It's a scrappy, creative, labor of love that was born in a New York City bar and raised in a rented closet in someone else's office. It's had to fight for its existence most of the time. Her new book is Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur (available for preorder).
Brown graduated from Montreal's McGill University in 1997 and received her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2003.
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and the author of Smarter Faster Better, about the science of productivity and The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies. Duhigg studied history at Yale, received an MBA from Harvard Business School, and was a reporter at The New York Times for a decade. Today, he is a leading writer on the nature of habits and productivity. He writes books and magazine articles for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and The Atlantic.