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Imposter Syndrome, excessive modesty, and impact?


In my experience, as a coach and mentor, ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and excessive modesty are not common in business people, including owners and leaders. The two traits are often misunderstood because they can manifest in similar behaviour. The risk is confusing the two phenomena and the causes, but there are some important similar consequences of both for businesses.


Imposter syndrome is when an individual doubts their abilities and accomplishments leaving them fearful that they will be exposed as frauds. It can inhibit them from overtly declaring their purpose and their passion with the result they can appear timid and uncommitted. The risk is that may encourage mirroring of similar behaviour in their team.


Excessive modesty, when an individual is overly humble and self-effacing, often to the point of downplaying their strengths and accomplishments, can lead to a lack of positivity and a failure to celebrate success. As a style of leadership this can result in a culture of modesty which can lead to underselling the brand and falling short of potential growth.


The challenge is to recognise that although these two different underlying traits each have different root causes and the approach to managing them may need to be quite different, they both can have a detrimental impact on the business.


As a coach I have found that in both cases it’s helpful to work with leaders on perceptual positioning. It's a tool for getting perspective on how a leader's behaviour impacts those they are leading: others around them and their organisations. It involves shifting the perception of a situation by looking at it from different points of view or perspectives.


There are a number of steps involved:

  1. Identify the situation or issue: The first step is to identify the situation or issue in which the individual feels they are likely to be exposed as unqualified or less than capable or where they feel they are not really expected to be speaking out or giving their view in a forceful way. This may be addressing the leadership team or an all-hands 'town hall' meeting.

  2. Choose three positions: The next step is to choose three positions or perspectives to view the situation from. For example: the individual's own perspective standing in front of the 'audience', the perspective of a member of the audience - perhaps a regular employee, the perspective of a neutral third-party visitor to the meeting.

  3. Imagine each perspective: Once the positions have been chosen, the individual is asked to imagine themselves in each position, and to view the situation from that perspective. This can be done through visualisation or role-playing exercises. Physically moving from one position to another - for example, between three different chairs - can help reinforce the sense of perspective. The individual might talk aloud and speak the words said in that situation and hear them as if from the other people

  4. Reflect on the different perspectives: After imagining and hearing each perspective, the individual is asked to reflect on how each perspective feels, what new insights or information they gained, and how it might impact their understanding of the situation or issue.

  5. Integrate the perspectives: The final step is to integrate the different perspectives into a new, more comprehensive understanding of the situation or issue. This may involve identifying new options or strategies for addressing the issue or building better relationships with others involved in the situation.

Perceptual positioning can be a powerful tool for gaining a new perspective on a situation or issue, and can help individuals to get a stronger sense of how they impact others. It's true that perceptual positioning alone will not address imposter syndrome or excessive modesty but the technique can help a leader recognise that in spite of how they may feel about themselves, their responsibility is to lead with conviction and energy and to consider how those around them think.


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