Female chiefs twice as likely to suffer from 'imposter feeling', report finds

David Sole cites the need for leaders to develop coping strategies to deal with the 'phenomenon' of impostor feeling. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
David Sole cites the need for leaders to develop coping strategies to deal with the 'phenomenon' of impostor feeling. Picture: Ian Georgeson.
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Many senior business leaders in the UK are still being held back by “impostor feeling” – believing that you are out of your depth in your role and afraid of being caught out – holding back business performance, according to new research.

The study found that women leaders were found to experience impostor feeling to a higher level than men (54 per cent of women scored frequent or high versus 24 per cent of men).

Unconscious bias around gender roles in leadership is seen as a likely contributing factor.

The research has been carried out by executive development specialist the School for CEOs, where Scots rugby legend David Sole is co-founder and managing partner, and the Department of Psychology at Heriot-Watt University.

They found that of the 290 leaders who participated, including 148 CEOs, chairs and non-executive directors of some of the UK’s best-known firms, more than a third (36 per cent) indicated that they still experienced frequent or high levels of impostor feeling.

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They also said that early research defines impostor feeling as “a psychological construct that inhibits individuals from reaching their full potential”, adding: “It is fuelled by self-limiting beliefs such as not deserving to be in a role, being out of one’s depth and at risk of being caught out, which leads to feelings of anxiety, isolation and self-doubt.”

Sole, who formerly captained the Scottish international rugby team, said: “Impostor feeling is something that is referenced frequently at programmes that we run, so we thought that we would try and find out more about it and how leaders can develop coping strategies to deal with this phenomenon.”

Tackling the issue

The report, titled Overcoming Impostor Feeling; how senior executives manage their insecurities, revealed that older leaders experience impostor feeling less than their younger counterparts. This was attributed in some cases to experiencing failure early on and building resilience.

The research also cited strategies to tackle impostor feeling. These include acceptance and personal resourcefulness; learning to reframe perceptions of others and building strong networks.

Sole added: “Implementing some of the coping strategies that we have identified in the research will undoubtedly help leaders who experience impostor feeling deal with [it] more effectively and consequently lead their organisations more successfully. In particular, this is of relevance to the work we are doing in the area of inclusive leadership.”

School for CEOs chair Patrick Macdonald concluded: “For experienced leaders to share their coping mechanisms for impostor feeling should be of great value to those who aspire to the most senior jobs.”