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Feeling Unsure Doesn’t Make You an Imposter

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
March 11, 2021

We’re taught pretty young that leadership behaviors such as confidence, assertiveness and dominance are considered masculine. The assumption that leadership is masculine ends up creating a bias towards men and away from women. It also reinforces the stereotypic expectation that men take charge while women take care.

Current Leadership Norms Aren’t Working

Employees who don’t conform to societal expectations of masculine leadership often struggle more with doubting their abilities or feeling like they are a fraud. In a large part, that’s because our systems have been built around rather narrow definitions of acceptable behaviors based on historically white male models of leadership. The research of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic offers that the accepted norm of masculine leadership is ineffective and has made it more difficult for us to detect incompetence in men. In fact, he claims we’ve developed a tolerance for people (usually men) who aren’t as talented as they think.

How does that show itself in the workplace? One look at the results of employee engagement surveys demonstrates that most leaders fail at engaging or motivating their employees. Many leaders alienate or stress out their staff, resulting in co-workers who are frustrated, disengaged or fed up. Yet in these systems, male leaders are frequently rewarded for their confidence, even when they’re incompetent.

These same systems often find fault in women leaders because they either display a perceived lack of confidence or they show too much confidence, both of which are considered socially unacceptable. When evaluating for similar leadership behaviors, women leaders often experience prejudices not faced by their male peers, are treated as less qualified, are considered as less effective than their male counterparts and are frequently socially excluded, all of which exacerbates self-doubt.

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and or feeling like you’re a fraud. The research started with the identification of fairly common feelings of discomfort, anxiety or self-doubt, and pathologized it, particularly for women. Unfortunately, labeling it a “syndrome” not only downplays how common it is, but also erroneously frames it as an abnormality or a disease. We each doubt ourselves privately but assume that we’re alone in that because no one openly talks about their self-doubt.

It’s when self-doubt is reinforced by repeated experiences that common feelings of self-doubt become either minimized or exacerbated. The workplace experience for men tends to decrease self-doubt and reinforce confidence as their work and abilities are validated over time. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey note that men are, “Able to find role models who are like them, and rarely (if ever) do others question their competence, contributions or leadership style. Women experience the opposite.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when a woman holds herself up to culturally biased and skewed leadership standards, she might experience a sense of self-doubt. Author Alicia Menendez noted, “If white, straight, able-bodied women without children find themselves navigating narrow expectations around how they should behave, those paths to leadership are narrower yet for women of color, for queer women, for disabled women and for moms.”

Women in the workplace are continually faced with microaggressions, gendered expectations and assumptions based on stereotypes. Women of color face the additional challenge of systemic racism. To label women’s lack of confidence as simply “imposter syndrome” completely ignores these dynamics and conveys an expectation that women are solely responsible for dealing with the effects of workplace bias and discrimination.

Past efforts to address imposter syndrome have resulted in trying to “fix” women instead of fixing the workplace. It’s time to shift our focus to better understand why imposter syndrome exists in the first place, and then be willing to consider how our workplace systems are contributing to and exacerbating it, particularly for women. This shift in focus would acknowledge the role of context—both historical and cultural—in our current workplace environments and provide a foundation to begin openly challenging our leadership assumptions and our ways of interacting.

Micro-behaviors Can Make a Big Difference

If an organization is serious about wanting to shift to a more supportive environment, a place to start is “micro-behaviors.” Micro-behaviors are subtle gestures, tones and actions that influence how included (or not included) employees may feel. Consider the following questions, each of which can make a difference in whether an employee feels valued and included:

  • Do you use nicknames for some people and not for others?
  • Do you consistently mispronounce non-Western names?
  • Do you interrupt a person mid-sentence?
  • Do you roll your eyes when someone on the team is talking?
  • How do you respond to good (or bad) ideas?
  • How do you listen?
  • How do you disagree?
  • How do you acknowledge the work of others?

Intentionally being aware of your own micro-behaviors can help you become a more inclusive leader, while also creating a more inclusive culture. The answer to addressing imposter syndrome isn’t to focus on fixing individuals, but rather to develop supportive workplace environments that acknowledge and welcome a variety of leaders and leadership styles.


Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding executive leadership and management positions. She is currently a Scholar-in-Residence with the Utah Women and Leadership Project and owner of Townsend Consulting, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services. She can be reached at [email protected] Townsend.Consulting.  Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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