In my work as a career and leadership coach and consultant for mid- to high-level professional women, I’ve been stunned at the degree to which highly accomplished women frequently struggle with feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, low self-confidence and confusion about how they, in fact, reached the high levels they’ve achieved. In doing a deep dive with them, my research has shown that a full 98% of professional women experience at least one of the 7 most damaging power gaps that prevent individuals from reaching their highest and most thrilling potential, and 75% face three or more of these gaps at the same time. One of the most challenging is Power Gap #1 – not recognizing your special talents, abilities, and gifts.
Earlier this month, KPMG released its 2020 edition of Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report focused on executive women demystifying imposter syndrome. To learn more about the prevalence of the impostor syndrome and what leaders, managers and others need to understand about it, I caught up this week with Laura Newinski, KPMG’s U.S. Deputy Chair and COO, to explore her thoughts on the findings with us.
In her role, Newinski is responsible for the development of the U.S. firm’s strategy and the execution of its priorities. She has extensive experience serving Fortune 500 companies, and is recognized for her strong commitment to quality and integrity and consistent focus on building diverse and inclusive teams.
Here’s what Newinski shares:
Kathy Caprino: Why did KPMG conduct this study on imposter syndrome?
Laura Newinski: Each year, our firm hosts the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit which brings together top leaders from business, politics, sports, and the media to help forge paths for women leaders to advance to the C-suite. The Summit provides hundreds of rising executive women, nominated by their CEOs to participate in the program, with high-impact leadership development content, access to today’s top leaders and year-long networking opportunities.
As part of these efforts, we sponsor research or studies to better understand the specific issues women face in corporate America, and to glean insights on how we can continue to advance more women into leadership positions in the workplace. This year we surveyed 750 executive women from major companies, including many of the top brands—who are one or two career steps away from the C-suite—about their experiences, if any, with imposter syndrome and how they have successfully overcome it.
Caprino: So, how did the study define “imposter syndrome?”
Newinski: In the study, imposter syndrome was defined as the inability to believe your success is deserved as a result of your hard work and the fact you possess distinct skills, capabilities and experiences. Rather, your inclination is to internalize that you got where you are by other means such as luck, or being in the right place at the right time.
Caprino: Are there moments in time when imposter syndrome typically occurs in one’s career?
Newinski: Our study found that 75% of executive women identified having experienced imposter syndrome at various points during their careers—and 85% believe it is commonly experienced by women across corporate America. Women can experience imposter syndrome in key moments of an existing role, or at specific milestones such as a career change or promotion. In fact, nearly 6 in 10 executive women told us that promotions or transitions to new roles were the times that they most experienced imposter syndrome.
Caprino: Have you personally experienced imposter syndrome and how did you address it?
Newinski: Like many of the women in our study, I have experienced similar feelings during moments of transition. Earlier in my career, when I received a promotion, I knew certain colleagues assumed, albeit wrongfully, I got the position solely because I was a woman. This made me feel insecure and caused me to doubt my abilities. To overcome these feelings, I focused on what I knew I was good at—building relationships founded in trust, gaining allies and fostering a culture of teamwork. I directed some special energy at the people I thought didn’t believe in me. This strategy worked. It made me a better leader and it brought several people on my team along on their personal journeys of self-awareness, while increasing candid and productive communication and collaboration.
Caprino: In my work with executive women, I’ve seen that the impostor syndrome also includes feeling unsure of yourself and worrying that you’ll be “found out” in terms of what you believe you don’t know that you should. What are other typical symptoms of imposter syndrome and what is the prevalence of men having it compared to women?
Newinski: Imposter syndrome manifests itself in feelings of self-doubt, fear of success or failure, or self-sabotage. I’m sure many leaders—both male and female— recognize these feelings. According to our study, 74% of executive women said they don’t believe male leaders have as much self-doubt as their female counterparts. While men also experience self-doubt, the executive women we surveyed think men don’t admit it, don’t talk about it, or do a better job of covering it up.
Moreover, 81% of the executive women surveyed believe they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men do—in effect, giving themselves a much smaller margin for error than men in similar leadership positions. Nearly half said their feelings of self-doubt resulted from never expecting to reach the heights of success that they’d achieved and more than half have been afraid they won’t live up to expectations.
Additionally, more than half said the more successful they become, the lonelier it gets at the top, because—as nearly one-third of respondents told us—they didn’t know other women in similar positions.
Caprino: I’ve observed that the impostor syndrome is in great part shaped by patriarchal societal and cultural influences as well as rigid gender stereotypes that dictate what “feminine” should look and act like. What do you believe contributes to women experiencing imposter syndrome so frequently?
Newinski: Many of our survey respondents felt women may experience imposter syndrome more than men due to differences in how boys and girls are raised in childhood. They cite how, from an early age, boys are encouraged to lead, demonstrate self-confidence and exhibit less emotion than girls. Women also cited family expectations, gender roles, societal stereotypes, and cultural differences as root causes of self-doubt. The respondents further identified self-imposed pressures and self-criticism as key contributing factors of doubt and uncertainty.
Caprino: How can imposter syndrome be addressed and overcome?
Newinski: Leaders play a huge role here. In fact, one of the survey findings that really resonated with me revealed that 47% of executive women believe having a supportive performance manager is the number one factor in combating imposter syndrome. I always remind the women I’ve promoted that they have what it takes to be where they are and to be successful. That simple gesture can be extremely powerful and lasting.
Other aspects that matter include the promotion of teamwork and an inclusive culture, while keeping a special eye on the needs of the individual. Strong relationships with one’s colleagues and leaders, built on open and honest communication, within a culture where people feel respected and valued can help women overcome self-doubt and promote their own self-worth.
72% of executive women responding to our survey have looked to the advice of a mentor or trusted advisor when doubting their abilities to take on new roles. In this kind of culture, women are empowered to redirect their fears and doubts and turn them into opportunities for growth.
Caprino: What are some of the ways leaders can lessen the experience of imposter syndrome for women on their teams?
Newinski: Again, our contributions as leaders are pivotal. It starts with courage and attentiveness—thinking and acting boldly, with an eye on building supportive environments that foster a sense of belonging for women on our teams. Some specific actions to consider include:
- Being a supportive performance manager and leading with empathy.
- Keeping the lines of communication open and looking for new ways to strengthen your relationships with those on your team.
- Ensuring your employees feel valued, fairly rewarded and appreciated.
- Promoting collaboration and emphasizing the importance of culture.
- Prioritizing diversity and inclusion so everyone feels comfortable being their authentic selves at work.
- Listening, to ensure differing opinions and viewpoints are heard and valued.
While many women in KPMG’s survey said they experience imposter syndrome, the good news is that it can be overcome. Leaders and organizations that successfully build supportive environments and foster a sense of belonging can help women confidently grow and thrive.
For more information, watch highlights from the 2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit, including additional thoughts from Newinski about the study.
Kathy Caprino is the author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals overcome imposter syndrome in her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs.