Seek out second opinions. You may already have a personal or professional mentor. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to seek out a trusted friend, colleague, teacher, or manager to lean on for support. Mentorship relationships have demonstrated an array of beneficial outcomes that can diminish the impact of Impostor Syndrome, including: enhanced well-being and higher self-confidence due to challenging negative self-views. Individuals with active mentors also enjoy a greater likelihood of promotion due to a better understanding of one’s skills and professional value.
As a part of our series about how very accomplished leaders were able to succeed despite experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kara Fasone.
She is a Sr. Talent Strategy & Development Consultant at Bird and an adjunct professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has a PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology and a passion for pushing others to reach their fullest potentials. She practices a people-focused and data-driven approach to exploring workplace behavior and building incredible employee experiences.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
For as long as I can remember, I hoped to find a career that would allow me to directly help others. I initially considered medical school … until I encountered my college nightmare — also known as Inorganic Chemistry. Soon after, I realized the sight of blood was a fool proof way to make me queasy.
While becoming a medical doctor was out of the picture, I didn’t give up on finding my perfect role. I discovered my career “sweet spot” by aligning my personal mission — helping others to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives — to my professional strengths. This led me to study human behavior in the workplace and use that knowledge to help organizations maximize the performance, productivity, and overall engagement of their most important asset: their people.
Since completing my PhD in Industrial Organizational (I/O) Psychology, I’ve built my career via partnering with organizations to inspire people-focused and data-driven policies, programs, and cultures. Over the past 7 years, I’ve created, managed, and iterated HR programs in areas ranging from employee engagement to leadership development to diversity & inclusion (and everything in between!).
The principles behind “Impostor Syndrome” theory have always resonated with me. Despite achieving multiple graduate degrees at a relatively young age and surpassing quite a few personal and professional milestones that would qualify me as conventionally “successful”, I’ve continuously struggled with the little voice in my head insisting that I’m not good enough.
I’m excited to share what I’ve learned regarding overcoming Impostor Syndrome from my years of research and first-hand experience!
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I remember a situation I’d encountered when I started my first “real” job out of college. I was working full-time, completing graduate classes, and feeling accomplished and in control for the first time in my life.
The following encounter has stuck with me because it was one of the first times I’d felt the voice in my head pipe up, “you don’t belong in this role!”. I remember coaching a manager through a tough employee situation, collaboratively brainstorming ways in which he could frame the tough conversation. As I allowed the manager to vent, he said in frustratingly shared, “All of these 24-year-olds are so emotional and entitled. You know how it is when they’re just out of college.”
At the time of this conversation, I was 22 years old. I politely interjected, sharing my age and briefly explaining why making generalizations can be damaging. While I felt I handled the situation appropriately, it did cause me to reflect on my own unique situation and become hyper-focused on how others could potentially “judge me” based solely on factors such as age, gender, or appearance.
My story is meaningful to me, and interesting because I know I’m not alone. I bet if you took 5 minutes to self-reflect now, you’d be able to pick out a situation — whether personal or professional — that created doubt in your own abilities or inspired anxiety around what others think of you.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At the time of this interview, I’m in the midst of a career transition; however, I’ll share a bit about my previous company, Kin + Carta. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the company’s emphasis on employee listening, which had inspired a number of organization-wide transformation initiatives, including more formally educating our people leaders, making diversity, equity, and inclusion a strategic priority, and enhancing our approach to performance management and feedback.
This listening provided awareness into the social dynamics that can impact one’s experience at work. During my time at K+C, the company has facilitated global workshops to help employees deal with biases, social “constraints” and feelings of self-doubt. My favorite workshop offering was Google’s #IamRemarkable session, which is a Google initiative made available to organizations with the intention to empower women and other underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements in the workplace and beyond. This interactive and self-reflective experience has some major self-doubt busting exercises, and I highly recommend it to those in roles responsible for driving DE&I within organizations.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My first every manager was — and continues to be — my most important career mentor. Her approach to managing team members marries empathy, excellence, and exploration. Though she provided candid feedback and perspective when things didn’t go as planned, she always probed deep to build empathy for my situation and understand my point of view. She had expectations of excellence and her vision was always made clear. Most importantly, she encouraged exploration of my interests, desires, and strengths.
This manager helped me identify projects that I didn’t feel I was ready to manage (spoiler alert: I was). She helped me break down mental barriers that kept me from releasing my work before it was “just perfect” or meeting others who I had perceived as “too senior” to interact with. She gently nudged me towards behaviors and situations that would elevate me both personally and professionally.
I remember when I’d had a discussion with my peers from my graduate school program. In casual discussion, we’d shared our salaries at our respective companies. When I’d realized that my peers — who had shared similar levels of experience and seniority — made significantly more money than I had in comparable roles, I began to feel undervalued. I did my research and presented my salary recommendations to my manager. She was supportive and helped coach me through the negotiations process. Ultimately, I got a raise, and while it wasn’t exactly what I’d asked for, this experience helped boost my confidence and clarify my value as a professional.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the experience of Impostor Syndrome. How would you define Impostor Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?
Impostor Syndrome — coined in the late 1970’s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes — is a collection of feelings that creates the belief that you’ve only succeeded by luck, rather than because of your unique talents, qualifications, or hard work.
Ultimately, Impostor Syndrome occurs when individuals find it challenging to internalize and acknowledge their own successes and accomplishments. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and low self-worth. Oftentimes, those who battle these feelings share that they feel as if they’re a “fraud”, and fear being “found out” by their friends and colleagues.
This definition may resonate with you, and that’s not surprising, as the Impostor Syndrome is incredibly common. In fact, a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science estimated 70% of people experience impostor feelings at some point in their lives.
If you agree with the statements below (see Clance’s full self assessment tool), you may be battling Impostor Syndrome:
- When people praise me for something I’ve accomplished, I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to their expectations of me in the future.
- I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.
- It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.
- Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.
- I’m disappointed at times in my present accomplishments and think I should have accomplished much more.
What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?
Impostor Syndrome can limit you in a number of ways, and they’re not always readily apparent.
- Impostor Syndrome can fuel perfectionism. You may feel compelled to set unrealistically high expectations to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. This can be damaging because regardless of your overall achievement, one small misstep or mistake can cause you to question your competence and fuel a continued cycle of self-doubt.
- Impostor Syndrome can prevent you from grasping opportunities. Say, for example, you’re searching for a job and you stumble upon your dream position. You’ve skimmed the responsibilities and feel confident you can crush it. Then, you spy the required “years of experience” and you pause. This job calls for 2 more years of formal job experience than you can claim. Within Impostor Syndrome’s tight grip, you’re likely to not even apply for the job despite your impressive and relevant experience.
- Impostor Syndrome confuses effort expenditure with deficiency. When you encounter situations where you have to invest time and effort to perform, you may feel that this energy expenditure is “proof” that you’re not as smart or competent as you should be. In reality though, it’s a nod to the reality that there’s always more to discover and even “experts” experience learning curves. Growth mindset, anyone?
- Impostor Syndrome may inhibit collaboration. Sometimes, those who battle Impostor Syndrome adopt a “soloist” mindset in which leaning on others for support or asking for help feels like an indicator of inadequacy or failure. The only failure here, however, is the failure to recognize the necessity of collaboration and diversity of thought in our increasingly connected world!
- Impostor Syndrome can lead to stress and burnout. You may find yourself prioritizing work over sleep, disregarding your free time, or setting unachievable goals. These types of behaviors rob you of the opportunity to relax, recharge, and maintain a healthy mindset.
How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?
Those who experience Impostor Syndrome may not be the only victims. Unfortunately, the way we perceive and treat ourselves can also influence how we perceive and treat others.
Earlier, I’d touched on the damaging impact of perfectionism via a vicious cycle of setting unrealistic expectations, coming up short in your achievements, and perpetuating feelings of inadequacy. This cycle, when encountered over time, can also lead to inaction. In other words, your fear of failure can result in procrastination or inaction altogether. When considered in the context of relationships, this fear of failure — or in this case, rejection or judgement from others — can result in an unwillingness to include, interact with, or lean on others for support.
Another way in which Impostor Syndrome can negatively impact your relationship with others is through projection. Oftentimes, those who experience Impostor Syndrome not only hold unrealistic expectations for themselves, but also may project those same expectations onto others. In the workplace, for instance, this may result in difficulty delegating tasks, micromanaging projects, or being overly critical and underappreciated. I don’t know about you, but that certainly doesn’t describe the type of leader I’d prefer to work for!
We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been highly achievement-oriented. I remember working hard in elementary school to score straight ✓+’s on my report card and completing as many chores as I could in order to see my gold star stickers accumulate on the family refrigerator. From time to time, I’d even “ground” myself when I’d done something naughty that my parents didn’t know of. The punishment of choice usually consisted of returning the Oreo cookies my mom doled out during snack time.
I tried hard to do well because I enjoyed the feelings of learning and achieving new things. As I continued through high school and college, however; the time and effort I spent toward “achievement” intensified and the feelings of enjoyment diminished. Anything under a 4.0 GPA was unacceptable, 5k runs were no longer an athletic accomplishment, and compliments felt awkward and undeserved. I continually readjusted my definition of “success” toward the unrealistic asymptote that’s known as “perfection”.
At age 25, I’d run a marathon, traveled to numerous countries, nearly doubled my salary, and completed my PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology. At the same time, I’d reached peak anxiety, I felt physically unwell, and I found myself continuously searching for higher-paying, higher-status jobs. Friends and family members would gush about how much I’d accomplished, and I would retort, “it was luck and my Type A personality. I’m not as smart you think.”
Despite meeting so many important life milestones, I was stuck in my own “perfection purgatory.” Rather than feeling proud, I was oftentimes overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t feel like the person everyone saw outwardly. Inwardly, I felt like a fraud.
Textbook Impostor Syndrome.
Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?
It’s an ongoing process, but I’ve seen a great deal of progress in my personal journey to shake Impostor Syndrome.
First and foremost, I’ve shifted my mantra from “go big or go home” to “progress over perfection”. This mental transition allows me to compare the decisions I’m making and behaviors I’m engaging in to an obvious operating principle. For example, if I find myself staying hours late working on a presentation, I can ask myself: “Are the changes I continue to make adding to the persuasiveness or overall quality of the slide deck or am I making small changes that are non-substantive “nice-to-haves.” I’d estimate that 80% of the time I ask that question, I’m working toward perfection, and that’s a clear cue to stop!
Secondly, I’ve clouded out comparisons. While it’s totally fine to look up to celebrities, scientists, and other highly-accomplished figures, this inspiration can become damaging if you’re making comparisons. At the deepest point of my Impostor Syndrome struggle, I found myself constantly comparing my success (and even my appearance) to those around me without fully appreciating the various other factors and conditions that can drive success. I’ve since limited my time on social media and committed to serving as my own personal and professional yardstick for measuring my progress, opposed to over relying on social comparison.
Ultimately, mitigating feelings that come with Impostor Syndrome can be a lifelong process. It’s been crucial for me to not only evaluate my own negative self-talk tendencies, but also to build a network of supportive individuals who are familiar with my strengths and talents (and willing and able to remind me of them when I’ve encountered blind spots).
In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Impostor Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Impostor”? Please share a story or an example for each.
While it’s important to recognize that there’s no “Silver Bullet” solution to overcoming Impostor Syndrome, there are certainly strategies you can use to minimize these feelings over time. I’d recommend the following (in no particular order).
- Seek out second opinions. You may already have a personal or professional mentor. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to seek out a trusted friend, colleague, teacher, or manager to lean on for support. Mentorship relationships have demonstrated an array of beneficial outcomes that can diminish the impact of Impostor Syndrome, including: enhanced well-being and higher self-confidence due to challenging negative self-views. Individuals with active mentors also enjoy a greater likelihood of promotion due to a better understanding of one’s skills and professional value.
- Flex your expertise. Finding opportunities to demonstrate your expertise can clue you into how much you truly do know about your field or craft. This can take the form of knowledge-sharing with your colleagues and team members, mentoring new hires, or tutoring younger students. The act of teaching others forces one to reflect on and make visible their expertise in a way that can be personally inspiring.
- Identify your strengths. As humans, our brains are wired to focus on the bad. This tendency is known as the “negativity bias” and can have detrimental consequences on your behavior, relationships, and self-esteem. The good news? You can become better at pinpointing the positives and understanding your strengths over time.
One method you can use is the SIGN framework, which allows you to surface strengths by reflecting on your:
- S: successes,
- I: innate abilities,
- G: go-to tasks and activities, and;
- N: niche work style
Alternatively, you can gather feedback from others. Many organizations offer 360-feedback assessments, but if you don’t have access to this type of tool you can use kevan.org’s free Johari Window tool. Both assessments allow you to clarify blind spots and identify hard-to-see strengths by aggregating the perspectives of multiple others.
- Realize “perfection” doesn’t exist. Over the past three decades, research shows that levels of perfectionism in US college students has increased significantly. Not only is perfection unachievable, it’s also a major productivity and personal image suck. The sooner you realize this, the easier it becomes to break free from its grips, which will allow for less procrastination, more action, a greater sense of pride and accomplishment, and more collaborative and innovative behavior.
- Reframe your thinking. Neuroscience-based coaching, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), relies on the concept of neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to change itself — to help you understand how to unlearn negative ways of thinking and relearn more adaptive thought patterns. It’s not a quick fix, and it’s best explored with a trained psychologist, but it can be a plausible long-term strategy to overcome Impostor Syndrome via self-awareness, focused attention, deliberate practice..
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to make mental health a more mainstream consideration in the workplace. While many employers offer access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), it still seems to be somewhat of a “check-the-box” type of offering. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. This statistic is particularly relevant to those struggling with Impostor Syndrome, as stress levels are often inflated which can lead to extreme anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and burnout.
As I’d shared earlier, my life mission is to help everyone I touch to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. Since we spend nearly a third of our waking hours working, it’s not surprising that the workplace presents ample opportunity to help people increase their well-being and sense of self.
My vision goes beyond EAPs and conventional wellness programs. I’d love to see more flexible work policies, manager education on how to help employees manage stress and prioritize work-life balance, and safe spaces in which mental health can be discussed opposed to stigmatized.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
What a fun thought question! Although a million and one people spring to mind when I think about all of the amazing and inspirational people in this world, I’d probably choose a private breakfast with Chris Evans to share pancakes and perspectives.
As an I/O psychologist, human behaviors, motivations, and habits in any context fascinates me; however, I’m generally constrained to studying the psychology of the workplace and individuals who hold more “typical” 9–5 jobs. It’d certainly be a welcome break in routine to develop an understanding and empathy for a less conventional and very highly visible career like professional acting.
I’ve also appreciated the vulnerability and transparency that Chris has shown in interviews when discussing his experience with anxiety and the importance of mental health. I remember stumbling upon a YouTube video titled “Getting Inside Chris Evans’ Head”, which held a very casual, conversational, and candid tone. In this video, Chris shares perspective on anxiety, insecurity, and self-awareness — all ingredients that factor into how one may experience and overcome Impostor Syndrome.
Chris has also been one of the drives behind A Starting Point, a video-based platform to keep US citizens informed of the perspectives and priorities of elected officials. I strongly believe the ways in which we structure programs, processes, and institutions (e.g., education, social welfare programs, etc.) within our society can have a profound impact on the mental health and wellness of the public. While it may seem that individuals have little opportunity to make an impact, the first step can be developing awareness around what our elected officials are doing to better our communities and prioritize public health.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I invite any interested readers to reach out via my LinkedIn page. I’m always happy to connect with individuals who are passionate about Human Resources (HR) and the many fascinating areas within this space!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!