Imposter syndrome: keeping our heads up in times of change

Much of the work we do with clients is at a time of change. Change creates a communication need for two reasons. The first is that there can be a lot of noise around a change – misconceptions abound, prejudices are artificially confirmed, people get nervous about what the change will mean for them.

The second, very related, reason is that people can suddenly see their world slightly differently; the things that they used to take for granted, the things and the people that they placed their trust in, can suddenly look a bit different. They take on a new patina. We look at them through a new filter.

So when someone takes on a new leadership role for example, or heads up a new venture, or responds to change from the outside (ranging from a pandemic to a political change such as Brexit) there’s a need on the leader’s part to help the people around them get to firmer ground; they need to reduce the noise, build relationships, and get people to come together in a spirit of shared purpose. Above all, they need to avoid the temptation of keeping their heads down, or of allowing themselves to be fully distracted by operational issues and risks.

And right now that is as true as ever; when lockdown eases and we start gathering again in our workplaces, many of us will experience personal challenges, alongside all the joys of returning to normal life.

Anyone who has returned to work after having children, or a career break, after a sabbatical or an overseas appointment, will know very well how going back can be a test of confidence. We will ask ourselves if we can still perform. Will we be able to cope under the watchful eyes of others again? Will our work seem as important? Will it be more tiring? Will our relationships with others still be tight?

In other words, the imposter syndrome from which we all suffer at times, might well be more bothersome than normal. In our work, we often share with four ideas with our clients to help them keep their heads up and stay communicating during times of change.

  1. Cross each bridge as it comes. At times of change, timelines get rapidly condensed, as we’re all experiencing right now. Different parts of our brain get called upon to cope with the fact that it’s suddenly hard to think beyond the next few days. And our instinct tells us to go into hiding, to protect ourselves until conditions are clearer. And our advice to people is that yes they might need to slow down but don’t stop just because you’re feeling uncomfortable. It’s okay, you’ll get used to it. It will take time. Give it that time. You’ve got this.

  2. Don’t be a perfectionist. We can be overwhelmed by anxiety about getting things wrong, about bringing shame and embarrassment onto our shoulders; and we can work too hard and put too much time and energy into squeezing an additional 5% of success out of something; in effect, we squeeze too hard; all the juice comes out and the thing loses its structural integrity. So again, it’s okay, don’t listen to the silly people on Instagram – you don’t need to emerge from lockdown having learnt Spanish, the guitar, cookery or meditation. Take it easy, you’re probably doing more and better than you think.

  3. Relationships come first. One of the easiest mistakes to make during times of change is to rush into getting things done. Accruing proverbial fruit, low-hanging or otherwise. We want notches on our belt, and files in our folders. Just remember, you can’t get anything really important done in a community of people without other people, without a network. So spend time with people. Talk. Ask what’s different now and what’s the same. Remember why you’re all doing what you do and together, before getting too stuck into busy work.

  4. You’re not alone. Everyone has self-doubt. Everyone worries about performing. Everyone has an Achilles heel. And in our business we’ve lost count of the number of people, including well-known people, who appear to exude confidence like rays of light from the sun, and yet who told us, the moment the door shuts, how scared they are. Maybe they’ve bitten off too much this time. Maybe they’re going to look foolish. Will their families forgive them. And we say to them what I’m saying to you now – welcome to the club. It’s not a nice feeling, but it keeps you on your toes, and it’s a good sight better than overconfidence or complacency.