Failing to talk openly about “ethics” at work can be down to many reasons.
From disinterest to being over busy, from being self-absorbed to not realising its importance.
Of the many possible causes, there’s one that seldom gets an airing: Imposter Syndrome.
This arises when even successful leaders have chronic self-doubts about their abilities, and in this case talking about ethics. Many fear they would be speaking about something they’re not qualified to talk about.
And the smarter the leader the more likely they’ll suffer from this syndrome. It may be silencing them, or leaving them sufficiently insecure so they are deterred from even using the word “ethics” in a business context.
Imposter Syndrome: Feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the
face of information that suggests the opposite is true.
The more effective the leader, the greater the chance they’ll underrate themselves, and therefore be more more susceptible to Imposter Syndrome. CEOs for example tend to underrate themselves more than others do.
“The biggest fear is being found to be incompetent… This fear diminishes their confidence and undermines relationships with other executives.”
R. Jones, What CEOS are afraid of. HBR Feb 2015
Imposter Syndrome is really a whole collection of feelings of inadequacy, even when the person is perfectly competent. It happens internally, rather than reflecting reality.
If you could get successful leaders with these feelings to bare their soul, they might say something like:
“I’m not really qualified to talk about ethics,”
“People will think I’m just pretending a concern for ethics”
“People will think I’m being boring if I talk about ethics.”
Those who suffer from this insidious syndrome usually experience a nagging fear of being “found out” and try to suppress it. In business, a major worry is people will see their commitment to ethics as only skin deep. Leaders need a genuine concern for ethics or they risk being branded as hypocrites.
Feel like a fake
Fear being found out
Put success down to luck
Feelings of inadequacy are common and most people (70%) have probably suffered from them at some point. For example doctors who always seem so confident are well known to suffer from the fear of being thought incompetent.
Since no one is immune to them, when it comes to talking publicly about ethics in the business, what really matters is refusing to give in to such fears. Sadly, so many leaders with this syndrome respond with silence.
“Women often seem to have a fear of being “found out”…. I thought like that for years – but I’m massively over it now.”
Emily Maitlis, BBC Newsnight presenter
The more gifted the woman leader the more likely she’ll suffer from this syndrome. Consequently she may try extra hard to prevent people from believing she’s faking a concern for ethics.
Gifted women leaders often use their natural intuition and charm to win people over. So convincing people that ethics matters in the business, they may worry they did it only through charm, rather than by being authoritative about the issue.
Fear of being considered boring when talking about ethics may be driven by the Imposter Syndrome rather than actually being boring. Ethics expert Linda Fisher Thornton argues ethics is anything but boring because it’s:
“Human, positive, multidimensional, a system and a learning journey”
5 Ways to Talk About Ethics (Without Being “Blah Blah Boring”)
Meet the self-doubters
Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ”
Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the WHO: ”There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series: Considered herself “the biggest failure”, because although she had graduated from a university, her marriage failed and she had a child to care for but no job. She was living on government benefits.
Ajay Chopra, founder of the Fast Company: It’s 4 a.m. and I’m not sleeping. I’m wondering if my company will make it to the next quarter. I told the board, my team, my investors—I told everybody—that everything would be fine. But truthfully, I don’t know if it will.”
Tennessee Williams, writer: “I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.”
Michael Palin, comedian and broadcaster: “Part of my motivation is from crippling self-doubt – I have got to prove myself wrong.”
10 ways to beat Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome isn’t just psychobabble. For some people, it’s a real and painful experience, in which their inner person is separated from their outer person and their actions.
A leader who manages to talk about ethics in business is likely to be seen by employees as doing the right thing, having the right intention. Quite simply “you are what you do.”
Action to tackle the syndrome consists of various ways of reducing its impact, not necessarily completely eliminating it. Many of these actions can alter the internal monologue that is at odds with reality.
1. Feel the fear and do it anyway
A particularly powerful way to defuse the impact of Imposter Syndrome is to accept the fearful internal voice, but then deliberately ignore it, pressing on with the desired action. The painter Vincent van Gogh captured the essence of this approach:
“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
2. Rewrite your internal monologue
Nothing dilutes the power of negative thinking better than a steady diet of facts. Take time to make a written list of your strengths and what you contribute around ethics.
Ask others for their input, and refer to the list in times of self-doubt. If you’re in a new role, remember you were chosen for a reason. Also most people overestimate their abilities. People who fear they will be caught out as an imposter tend to underestimate theirs.
Rather than allowing the negative voice to prevail–“they’re going to find me out”, or “I don’t deserve success”—just keep reminding yourself it’s entirely normal not to know everything about ethics, and assume you’ll find out more as you progress.
Instead substitute new voices more under your direct control. For example:
Old voice: “I may not be an expert on ethics (true perhaps)
New voice: “But I care a lot about our business being ethical and in doing the right thing. (true).
3. Talk about your feelings
There may be others around you in the organisation who also feel like fakers when it comes to talking about ethics. It’s better to promote an open dialogue about this, rather than allowing the negative voices to prevail.
In this approach to defusing the power of feeling a phoney, you talk openly about it, without necessarily calling it Imposter Syndrome:
“I want to talk about ethics, and like most people, including you perhaps, I think this is tricky. In me it raises all kinds of difficult feelings.
What about you? Let’s share these and see where they take us.”
4. Reframe the context
We nearly all have moments when we don’t feel totally confident. Business leaders for example may feel out of their depth when it comes to ethics and such self-doubts can be a normal reaction.
If this feeling prevails it’s time to re-frame the context into a more favourable one such as
“I’m not useless when it comes to talking about ethics. Just because I feel useless right now doesn’t mean I really am.”
5. See it as a learning opportunity
Try asking the question: “what is this fear of speaking about ethics telling me? What can it teach me?
Let it trigger a period of personal enquiry in which you research into the topic doing enough to build greater confidence to talk about it.
Be willing to accept you need to become more familiar with the issue, so seek out informed colleagues, or even others outside the organisation to hear how they view ethics in business.
6. Treat yourself with respect
When it comes to ethics, it’s unrealistic to try to be perfect. You cannot “know it all”. Perfectionists typically believe anything short of a flawless performance all the time is unacceptable.
But none of us can live a mistake-free life; we all make errors. Those who fear they’ll be exposed as a sham, tend to hold themselves to impossibly high standards and feel shame, insecurity, and low self-esteem when they don’t meet their own expectations. But progress, not perfection, is what really matters.
Be sure to reward yourself when you do in fact get the big things right. For example, congratulate yourself on actually speaking up about ethics, despite fears of being found out.
7. Seek support
The most successful leaders are usually keen to embrace outside help with important issues. Speaking out about ethics is clearly one of those issues, so look around for who might give you support, even to the extent of mentoring.
Sharing your insecurities about speaking up about ethics with someone you trust and respect helps separate what’s real from inner insecurities.
8. Visualise success
Stay focused on the result you want—to talk publicly about ethics in your business. Keep reviewing whether what you’re doing is taking you further towards or away from your goal.
Concentrate on the desired outcome and visualise it going well. Imagine it as a short film clip perhaps. Repeatedly playing it through in your mind can help you stay calm and keep at bay the noisy negative voices.
9. Stay awake
If you worry that low self worth is invading your thoughts and actions, be proactive by keeping track of what triggers them. If necessary write them down—maybe even draw small pictures to symbolise each one.
As you learn to identify what those noisy and negative voices are saying, you keep asking yourself:
“Is this based on reality or my imagination?”
Find multiple ways to keep reminding yourself you’re handling the job well, and that nobody’s perfect.
10. Find your internal character
Inside each of us a whole cast of characters that influence how we feel and behave. For example, a bully, hero, hippie, sergeant major, couch potato, wimp, winner and so on.
These characters hold a certain status or hierarchy. In turn this affects how you respond to the world. For example, when you deliberately play “high status” it can affect your whole being, and undermine the bad effects of the syndrome
By choosing to focus on a particular character you begin to take charge of the situation and diminish the power of those negative characters. By choosing a particular status you will influence not only your internal chemistry but your external performance.
Constant reality checks are the best way to deal with unspoken imposter thoughts.
By constantly inserting your mind with a new coping reality you automatically defuse the ability of the Imposter Syndrome to create a false one.
The Imposter Syndrome, Caltech Counselling Center
How to banish ‘imposter syndrome’ once and for all, Daily Telegraph, 27th March, 2016
Maynard Leigh Associates’ presentation on Imposter Syndrome
Thanks to Bill Britten, Maynard Leigh Associates’ consultant, and Gillian Leigh, for advice on this post.
Lead image: Shuttlestock.