Cuckoo in the nest

Impostor syndrome is surprisingly common, with accountants more vulnerable to the condition than many other professionals. Peter Ryding explains how to overcome it

Peter Ryding, a CEO mentor, is offering e-coaching and e-learning platform Virtual Interactive Coach for free during these difficult times: vicyourcoach.com.

Are you successful yet somehow feel you could be found out at any moment? Have you ever felt scared of being found out, of not being good or resilient enough, or just felt out of your depth? If so, you are not alone.

You may have respected qualifications and career success, but confidence and resilience are often skin-deep. Most of us suffer from a lack of confidence or anxiety to some degree. Even before Covid-19, research from the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association showed that 98% of accountants feel stressed every day, and 60% have felt not good enough at their job (ie impostor syndrome) in the past 12 months. Recent events can only have magnified this – when things feel they are spiralling out of control, stress, anxiety and depression rocket.

98% of accountants feel stressed every day, and 60% have felt not good enough at their job in the past 12 months

Covid-19 has thrust accountancy practitioners into the eye of the storm. They have to steer their clients through the pandemic tumult, keep up to date with legislation and other government initiatives, and safeguard and advise on financial stability and integrity. Resilience is needed more than ever.

The most severe cases of impostor syndrome often occur in sectors that recruit and promote overachievers and demand the highest standards. Accountancy is a classic example, with long hours as standard and a competitive culture. To be noticed, employees have to continuously outperform their peers, so chronic self-doubt is prevalent.

Impostor syndrome not only affects mental and physical wellbeing, it also undermines performance, productivity and proactivity. By sapping self-confidence and self-esteem, it can prevent you achieving your potential. Even the most outwardly confident and successful executives live in fear of being exposed. This is why boosting self-confidence and resilience and overcoming self-limiting beliefs are among the most common outcomes they seek from coaching.

Is this you?

Impostor syndrome is a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their success and accomplishments despite strong evidence to the contrary. You may recognise one or more of the indicators in yourself:

  • workaholism – working very long hours, not taking time off, struggling to relax
  • perfectionism – never satisfied, struggling to delegate (micromanaging)
  • unfailing strength – never asking for help, being too independent
  • total expertise – needing to know everything, yet never knowing enough.

While both men and women experience impostor syndrome, it seems to affect more women. A 2019 study by Access Commercial Finance found two-thirds of women but only half of men had felt like a fraud in the previous 12 months. Self-doubt is reinforced by a lack of inclusion, role models and positive support, and disparities still exist in female representation at senior levels in the financial services – 44% of the workforce are women, but they account for only a third of senior management.

Impostor syndrome undermines work and lives in many ways. It instils self-doubt and low self-esteem, and impedes career growth by discouraging people from moving outside their comfort zone to take on more challenging roles and projects. At a senior level it hampers leadership and management, impeding decision-making and innovation. It also affects mental health, with overwork and mental burn-out creating stress, anxiety and feelings of isolation.

We shall overcome

For some, impostor feelings are fleeting; yet for others, they can be demoralisingly persistent. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Accept it’s common. Studies suggest that simply knowing you are not alone helps.
  • Separate feelings from fact. Just because you feel you are something doesn’t mean you are that something. We all feel stupid or slow or unprepared at times.
  • Accept you will never be perfect, and forgive mistakes. Perfection is unattainable, and making mistakes is how people learn best – so learn from yours.
  • Give yourself credit. Recognise your worth and value, internalise positive feedback and don’t fixate on the negative.
  • Attribute success truthfully. Everyone has good luck and bad luck. Passing off your success as luck undermines your abilities and confidence.
  • Identify your ‘rules’ and adopt new ones: ‘I don’t have to be right,’ ‘I don’t always have to know the answer,’ ‘I can ask for help,’ ‘I don’t have to be strong.’
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments and strengths. It’s less easy to discount a success when it is seen against a backdrop of past successes.

Management action

Staff suffering from impostor syndrome affect the success of the organisation. Leaders need to take positive action to address it – particularly now that the lockdown rules make for dispersed and often isolated workforces.

  • Build a culture with an emphasis on the employee’s wellbeing, both physical and mental.
  • Attribute success fairly. Reward teamwork as well as hard work. The current and post-pandemic environment will require a new approach to incentives and performance management.
  • Watch out for team members who are feeling out of their depth. Look for signs of loss of self-confidence and anxiety – for example, expressing greater uncertainty, becoming self-deprecating, deflecting praise, attributing success to luck or the skills of others.
  • Look for drop-offs in performance or signs of unremitting overwork: an unusual delay in responding to requests, procrastination over decisions, or emails sent way outside normal working hours.
  • Discuss impostor syndrome. Education and coaching can help significantly. Build a culture where it’s ok to not always know the answer.
  • Have a strong inclusion agenda.

In a profession where hard work, high standards and consistent outperformance matter greatly, trying to live up to the demands can be so overwhelmingly difficult that feeling like a fake is not unusual. But the real impostor here is the feeling itself. The truth is that a great many accountants are just as intelligent, creative and talented as they fear they aren’t.

Peter Ryding, a CEO mentor, is offering e-coaching and e-learning platform Virtual Interactive Coach for free during these difficult times.