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The Influencers

Imposter Syndrome - It’s Not a Syndrome, and It’s Probably Not You

INFLUENCER: Are we unnecessarily labelling our moments of self-doubt? AKQA London's Jo Hickson explores

Imposter Syndrome - It’s Not a Syndrome, and It’s Probably Not You

Imposter Syndrome. It’s a term on the rise. A Google Trends search shows that the last five years has seen a very significant increase in interest in this term, yet it is an imposter in itself. Firstly, this is not a syndrome. That is suggestive of a health problem, and we’re not talking about that. 

So what are we talking about? This ‘syndrome’ is about pervasive and persistent self-doubt. It’s there, no matter how well you deliver, or how accomplished you may be from the point of view of your teams and your peers. Self-doubt is an entirely natural response, especially at times when we’re faced with pressures of the new and unknown. So – are we unnecessarily labelling our moments of self-doubt with this new 21st-century term that potentially diminishes us? 

For me, interviewing for the role of head of technology at global innovation agency AKQA was a time of self-doubt. I do not have a background in software engineering (they didn’t want that). I hadn’t managed large teams (not an issue), and I had not worked in agency before (again, not the criteria). I spent a bit too much time thinking about all the boxes I didn’t tick without focusing on those I did: 25 years in business. 10 years leading innovation teams for significant brands. A passion for tech and innovation. A people person, driven by the desire to do great work that ‘moves the dial’. 

Do I feel like an imposter now? No. I’ve joined a successful agency full of talented people who challenge and question, and that’s how it should be, it does not make me question myself or my value. I’m a woman in technology, leading a team where I do not entirely understand the detail of every person’s job, and that’s just fine. I can manage and motivate my team regardless. 

Moreover, being a woman in a leadership role brings benefits. A recent report by McKinsey has found that the correlation between diversity and financial performance is substantial: more diverse teams equals significant economic out-performance. However, they found that whilst women make up around a third of non-executive directors, their representation among senior management teams is much lower. I am happy to be bucking that trend, and my company values what I bring to the business.

It is also entirely possible that we confuse the feelings of being an imposter with unattainable perfectionism. When is ‘good’ good enough? It’s important we set high standards for ourselves in our personal and professional lives, but impossible goals will create new self-doubt and foster feelings of being inadequate. And of course, with that negative mind set, it will be even harder to do the job well.  

I read recently about the ‘paperclip challenge’ which I think is a good test to see how many times your internal voice is not your friend. The voice that says, ‘you’re slipping’ - that the work you do meets your manager’s expectations - but hasn’t met your own, or that voice which compares yourself unfavourably with the superman or woman who seems to be able to ‘do it all’. Is that you? Try this. Put a handful of paperclips in your left pocket in the morning. Each time you have a negative thought about yourself, move a paperclip to the right pocket. At the end of the day – how many are in the right pocket? There’s no rule here, but you will know if it’s too many. 

This is important because this behaviour can lead to not being your whole self at work. Deloitte has found that 61% of people are ‘covering’ – which means hiding or suppressing a part of themselves whilst at work to do the job. To me, that’s a depressingly high percentage of people who are spending a large part of their days, weeks and lives not being ‘them’. Life is a journey of learning, growing and changing as people. And in that context, we should accept we are exactly what we are, and where we should be. Remember, it’s not who you think you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you are not. 



Jo Hickson is head of technology at AKQA London

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