How imposter syndrome and racism overlap

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Workplace attitudes to race and lack of role models mean BAME individuals are more susceptible to imposter syndrome

At some point you have probably come across the term ‘imposter syndrome’. If not, it is the belief that you are less capable than those around you, that your success is the result of luck or other external factors, and that you will be discovered as a fraudster.

The workplace impact of these beliefs can be significant. To overcome their feelings of inadequacy people struggling with imposter syndrome might overwork themselves or develop a harmful tendency towards perfectionism. They will find it difficult to recover from setbacks, and in the long term their career development will begin to wane as they will hold themselves back from pursuing personal ambitions or opportunities to progress.

But where do these feelings come from? There are several contributing factors. For example, if the person is different from those who tend to obtain certain roles they may be stereotyped, or lack role models and colleagues with a similar background to admire and connect with. These insecurities can foster a powerful feeling of self-doubt, ultimately culminating in imposter syndrome.

Millennials are often spoken about as being particularly at risk, with one survey finding that due to feeling intimidated in the workplace as many as a third struggle with imposter syndrome. However, there is one group in our society that is often overlooked as victims of imposter syndrome; namely the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) community.

A recent study found that despite making up 14% of the UK population, just 3% of the country’s most powerful individuals are BAME. With such a severe lack of representation, especially at senior levels, it’s no wonder that so many BAME workers struggle with imposter syndrome. But you may be wondering how this is an example of racism.

The vast majority of us would like to think that racism no longer has a place in our society. In reality it has evolved to survive in more subtle forms, going largely unopposed but remaining present. For example, not only are we becoming increasingly aware of the race pay gap and the lack of BAME representation at senior organisational levels, but our own research at Pearn Kandola has found that three in five (59%) BAME employees actually feel that colleagues have made assumptions about their ability, character or behaviour based on their ethnicity.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that so many BAME workers are feeling the effects of imposter syndrome. With a severe shortage of role models to aspire to emulate, as well as the constant reminder that they are different to the vast majority of their colleagues, they can easily start to feel as though they don’t belong.

However, there are strategies that anyone can use to help tackle this. The first is, quite simply, to think positive. Positive emotions enhance our sense of capability, empowering us to achieve more than when we focus on negative thoughts. Visualise your goal and think about what you need to do to reach it.

Be realistic though. People suffering from imposter syndrome often hold themselves to unrealistic standards and are then irreparably disheartened when they fail to live up to them. Remind yourself that you can succeed and that you deserve your success. But crucially create a series of achievable goals to work towards.

The second strategy is to examine our self-talk – the thoughts that we have about ourselves. Stewing on negative feelings will only cause them to fester, so the first thing we must do is stop thinking like this.

Writing persistent negative thoughts down can be a beneficial way of externalising and putting them into perspective. Once you’ve written down your worries, you can look at how these thoughts can be turned into positives. For example, you may think 'I don’t deserve to be in this job'. On writing it down and examining it you would say: 'the people who selected me to do this have confidence in my abilities'.

A third strategy is to recollect your achievements, successes or qualifications; whatever it is that makes you proud or gives you confidence. One person I know keeps a folder with the great feedback he has received over the years. When he has doubts, he returns to it to remind himself of his achievements and what others think of him.

There’s no denying that in the modern workplace imposter syndrome poses a significant challenge for employees and employers alike. What we must ensure though is that we aren’t dwelling solely on Millennials, politicians and celebrities. There is a much wider conversation to be had about how we can make BAME workers feel just as valued and included as their white colleagues. It may be uncomfortable at first, but only by acknowledging that for many people racism and imposter syndrome go hand in hand can we create a better workplace for all.

Binna Kandola is co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola, and author of Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference

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