confident woman smiling
A large percentage of small business owners suffer from imposter syndrome, which can hinder potential and fuel self-sabotage. — Getty Images/SeventyFour

Ever feel a little insecure about some of your business skills, perhaps fear others might sniff you out as an imposter? Welcome to good company: CEOs of top firms, employees at all levels in businesses of all sizes—everyone is susceptible to at least a little imposter syndrome, triggered by unfair self-comparisons to others.

Half of Americans say they struggle with imposter syndrome daily or regularly, according to a comprehensive study by business mentor Clare Josa, author of “Ditching the Imposter Syndrome.”

A whopping 82% of small business owners said they struggle with it daily or regularly, Josa told CO—. If you suffer the syndrome, it’s putting a lid on your potential, through subconscious self-sabotage. If employees have it, it’s holding your entire company back.

“If you find yourself procrastinating, stuck in perfectionism, not returning ‘that’ call until it’s slightly too late, having poor boundaries with clients, giving too much away for free, or discounting without being asked, chances are imposter syndrome is getting in the way of your business growth,” Josa said.

Imposter syndrome was first described by psychologists in the 1970s. High achievers, in particular, often find it difficult to accept their success and are liable to chalk it up to luck instead of ability.

“The imposter syndrome is real and it’s common,” said Don Moore, a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “It drives capable people to give up too quickly on a hard task in which everyone experiences challenges.”

It can even strike people who are prone to overconfidence in some areas, but who feel like they’re faking it on some important task.

“The imposter syndrome occurs in situations where what you’re undertaking is difficult and you don’t have a good sense of how good others are,” Moore told CO–. “So it’s tempting to think you’re not good enough, when you are.” Moore cautions against comparing yourself to the best of the best, rather than to people who are just good enough at whatever skill you feel you lack.

If you wear many or even all the hats, good enough on a particular task is often good enough, the experts say. You’ll shine elsewhere, so there’s little value in dragging yourself down on that thing you’re not great at, especially if you don’t have the funds to hire it out.

The imposter syndrome occurs in situations where what you’re undertaking is difficult and you don’t have a good sense of how good others are.

Don Moore, management professor, University of California, Berkeley

These feelings of fraud affect men and women roughly in equal numbers, Josa’s research shows, but they handle it differently—and guys could learn a thing or two from the women.

“Men tended to push on through the fear, taking action before they felt ready, which can build up anxiety and mental health issues down the line,” Josa said. “Women tended to hold back until they felt more ‘ready’ before taking action, but were 20 times more likely than men to turn to friends and colleagues for support, rather than hiding imposter syndrome, which led to better longer-term mental health outcomes.”

Alaina Levine, a career consultant and the author of “Networking for Nerds,” writes in Science Careers that she used to come down with imposter syndrome all the time. She kicked the habit by first acknowledging the emotions — frustration, anxiety and even fear— then taking charge of them. She made a case for being a fraud, listing all the reasons and then noting which were objective facts and which were emotions or opinions. Her advice, once that’s done: Take a small action or two to demonstrate to yourself that you can in fact get things done. Then constantly remind yourself: “You would never have made it as far as you did if you weren’t capable.”

Keep an eye on your employees, too, Josa advises. Those who suffer imposter syndrome will work hard to hide it. “But it will subconsciously affect their performance, their productivity, their team relationships and the company’s bottom line,” she said. They may hit an inexplicable performance ceiling or get sick just when you need them most.

Josa boils the signs down to a handful of Ps: perfectionism, procrastination, people-pleasing and project paralysis.

She cautions against trying to drown out the negative self-talk of others with your generic positive encouragement. Rather, it’s vital to help people realize that imposter syndrome is common, and that they can reclaim the power of believing in themselves.

“Being able to talk about this, in a judgement-free way, is the first step to helping a team member to ditch imposter syndrome and fulfill their potential,” Josa said.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published September 21, 2020