The Case Against “Imposter Syndrome”

Given that the legal industry is at least a decade behind the rest of the work world in acknowledging and attempting to address important cultural problems, I guess we should be grateful that legal publications and conferences now promote a steady stream of content designed to support women in their heroic battle against imposter syndrome. The problem is, the way this “syndrome” is framed — an individual problem that mostly women must overcome — is awfully self-serving to the organizations in which it takes place. If a woman’s nagging fear that she isn’t good enough (or isn’t perceived as good enough) is mainly a problem of her own personal beliefs, that means she alone is responsible for solving it. The organization, which creates the culture where the inferiority contagion of this syndrome replicates and spreads, is apparently off the hook.

Everybody feels doubts about their abilities sometimes. That is, of course, normal. But not all doubts come from the same source, and that’s why it can be tricky to characterize feeling like an imposter as an individual syndrome. In some cases, this doubt is a symptom of larger systemic biases and practices that smooth the path to power for members of majority groups and pose barrier after barrier for people whose identities are underrepresented at the top. A Black woman feeling like an “imposter” because she fears the all-white executive committee will judge her hairstyle does not have a problem with confidence. Her firm has a problem with institutional racism. Once we locate the source of the problem at the systemic level, it becomes obvious that all the self-help seminars in the world are not going to empower this woman to take her career to its full potential. And that the responsibility for fixing the problem really shouldn’t be on her shoulders at all.

Earlier this year, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey wrote a widely shared piece, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” for the Harvard Business Review, which delves deep into this individual/systemic conundrum. Not only do we need to think more about the role of bias in the “imposter” experience, but we should also be skeptical of some of the classic markers of leaders who feel, shall we say, entitled to hold their current position. “Confidence does not equal competence,” Tulshyan and Burey write, a statement that surely prompted thousands of female readers to nod their heads. When “confidence” is a goal unto itself, we teach people not to show vulnerability, not to say “I don’t know,” not to turn to a diverse array of voices and perspectives to help them build their knowledge. None of those are desirable outcomes.

Communicators have an important role to play in shaking up the tired narrative around imposter syndrome. Here are some things you can do today:

Take a second look at the programming your firm offers or sponsors. Is the focus mostly on training women how to cope with institutional sexism? Are there ways you can shift the focus or bring a new conference or webinar on board so that leaders are also learning how to create an inclusive workplace?

Review your internal communications. What kinds of professional development articles get circulated among members of the firm’s women’s initiative or other affinity groups? How are these groups described in onboarding documents? Can you enrich the discussion and information with other material that looks at imposter syndrome through a more critical lens?

When your owned channels like social media and the firm’s website share stories of women leaders, what kinds of questions do you ask them? Are there ways to consider the role of systems in their stories and not just the individual steps they took to build their confidence?

We can all benefit from learning how to move through fear to seize opportunities that will help us grow on an individual level. But to grow tomorrow’s organizations, we need to look outside our individual experiences and better understand how bias works against inclusion.