Feeling like you don't belong in the board room? What can you do?

10 min read

Sara Hatfield

Picture of Sarah Hatfield loving life

One condition that can impact on people working in the boardroom environment, particularly when they are new to this situation, is impostor syndrome. This occurs when we doubt our ability to perform in certain circumstances, or when self-doubt leads us to believe that we don't deserve respect or reward for our accomplishments. Once impostor syndrome strikes, those suffering from this condition live in fear that their accomplishments are undeserved, essentially lucky, and that they will be exposed as frauds.

Even the most successful, competent and qualified people can suffer with impostor syndrome. And this can be debilitating for them, particularly when they find themselves in social situations at work. Psychologists classify impostor syndrome as a psychological disorder, considering it to be a set of beliefs that shape how people make sense of the world around them. While impostor syndrome can impact on the lives of a wide variety of people, it is particularly associated with certain personality types; those who are vulnerable to perfectionism, and have a strong need to be validated by others, are said to be particularly inclined towards experiencing impostor syndrome.

The condition has been observed across largely every profession and demographic group, but it should also be noted that it can occur with particular regularity in competitive environments; hence, why the boardroom can be a setting in which feelings associated with impostor syndrome emerge and fester.

Origin of Impostor Syndrome

The term impostor syndrome was first used in the 1970s, when psychologists discovered that highly accomplished women frequently confessed to feeling unintelligent and unworthy of their success, even though there was considerable evidence to the contrary. However, subsequent studies have unearthed the reality that both men and women experience impostor syndrome in approximately similar numbers.

We can most commonly expect to experience impostor syndrome during major transitions in life, when an unpredictable aspect to our existence becomes apparent. This can definitely occur when people step into the boardroom for the first time, which is why this subject area is particularly relevant to board culture.

And yet, impostor syndrome is far from rare. Most people experience some form of impostor syndrome at some stage during their lives. Indeed, research indicates that approximately 70% of adults have experienced impostor syndrome, with around 25-30% of high achievers encountering it on a particular regular basis. The bottom line is that if you ever feel like an impostor in the boardroom, or indeed anywhere else, you are far from alone. In fact, you're part of the majority.

How Impostor Syndrome Arises

Impostor syndrome often manifests itself in the feeling that everyone around the person suffering with the condition is an expert, hugely qualified, or somehow superior. This is often completely baseless, and yet it can stifle professional careers, because those suffering with impostor syndrome feel less inclined to lead initiatives, speak up, take on challenging tasks, or apply for senior positions.

In many ways, impostor syndrome is an extension of a natural tendency. Self-criticism is, in itself, not abnormal, and can be a good thing in an appropriate context and suitable doses. Healthy self-criticism can help you make improvements in your life, and indeed play a role in propelling your career. But when this criticism becomes excessive, it morphs into a destructive lens through which you filter all of your behavior and achievements.

Impostor syndrome can attack in one of many different ways meaning that the symptoms manifest differently in different people. It is therefore important to recognize the underlying tendencies associated with your personal form of impostor syndrome before you can begin to deal with it.

The processes associated with impostor syndrome can become a vicious circle. Effectively, it can become a form of self-fulfilling prophecy in which the more you procrastinate and focus on your supposed inferiority, the more that you stymy your own qualities and perform at a reductive level. In a board meeting context, impostor syndrome can particularly materialize as an unwillingness to speak up, due to the fear of sounding stupid or unqualified. Then, conversely, if you don't say anything, it can make it appear that you are not contributing.

One of the major causes of impostor syndrome is the feeling that somehow we're not acting as our authentic selves. This can come from an underlying reasoning that we don't believe that we're worthy of being the person that others see in us. This can then become a huge burden, as we attempt to act in a way that is unnatural, undermining our confidence in the process.

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Thus, one of the ways to deal with impostor syndrome is to ensure that we become more authentic with ourselves, accepting who we are, where we're at, the position we occupy in life, and everything that we've accomplished - both good and bad. There is a reason that we've become the people that we are today, and this is completely unrelated to the nagging feelings of self-doubt that can be associated with impostor syndrome. Therefore, moving from thinking and feeling about being an impostor to recognizing our authentic selves is a constructive way of dealing with this difficulty.

But it's also important to recognise that we don't have all of the answers. We live in a complex world and in uncertain times, and that means that, by definition, no one has all of the answers. You don't know how things are going to work out. But that doesn't make you an impostor. It makes you somebody in a position to attempt to understand and ask for advice, make contributions, and address any issues that arise, which is all anyone can do. Wisdom is knowing how little we know.

Another way of dealing with impostor syndrome is to recognize what makes you different to others, and how you can deliver something unique that is reflective of your personal experiences. This provides you with something valuable to add to any board meeting, any work that you're doing, and the business or organization as a whole.

And while you're asserting your uniqueness, be sure to listen to any feedback that you receive. Don't just hear it, listen to it, recognize it, and act on it going forward. This often involves taking a step back and truly absorbing what is being said, rather than letting it go in one ear and out of the other. If someone is giving you feedback, it can be viewed as a process of validation, in which they're taking their time to acknowledge you as an individual. When we’re suffering with impostor syndrome, feedback can be terrifying, as we tend to assume that it will be negative or somehow critical. But we should view this feedback loop as a positive part of our process, and one that can help us develop as human beings.

The other thing that can be debilitating about impostor syndrome, and which makes it particularly relevant to those working in the boardroom environment is that it can become more intense the higher that you climb the corporate ladder. Those who find themselves in politically charged and competitive environments are simply far more likely to suffer with impostor syndrome, as extensive academic research has demonstrated. This can sometimes manifest itself in the exaggeration of accomplishments, or the hiding of mistakes. This doesn't show strength, it indicates insecurity and a lack of worthiness.

So how can you deal with these annoying feelings? Probably the very first thing to do is acknowledge that you have a problem. Many people struggle with impostor syndrome for many years, and do so in silence, without even acknowledging it to themselves. This article should help you to recognize the symptoms of impostor syndrome, and you need to at least attempt to be honest about whether they exist within you. If you don't do this, the symptoms can multiply, and this tendency can become hugely ingrained.

Avoiding Perfectionism and Reframing

Impostor syndrome can tend to make people strive for perfectionism, which is obviously deeply unhealthy. So one of the first measures that you can implement, once you realize that you are suffering with impostor syndrome, is to cease this endless pursuit for perfection. Remember that those around you aren't perfect either, and that it is our imperfections, flaws, and weaknesses that contribute to our overall humanity as much as our strengths and qualities. Putting yourself out there, having determination and grit, and coping with the unique experiences and challenges that you encounter have propelled you to the position that you're in now. And these struggles are just as important as your successes.

Another useful exercise is to determine the risks involved in feeling as if you're always faking it, or somehow not good enough. The consequences of this can be quite wide-ranging - everything from overcompensation with displays of authority, to declining to speak up at critical times. It's also worth noting that these actions can have a negative effect on those around you; it's important to understand that impostor syndrome can even damage your personal and working relationships.

Also consider the risks involved in failing to conquer impostor syndrome. Ask yourself how much you will benefit in everyday life, and in your working environment, simply by being an authentic version of yourself. There may be negative repercussions associated with this, and you may have new challenges to deal with, but typically you will find that the benefits far outweigh the downside.

You can also decide on actions to address the root cause of the syndrome. Seeking support from therapists or coaches can be particularly useful in this area, particularly as an outside perspective can often be valuable. You may also have to enter into some difficult conversations at work, and this can be challenging, but you will almost inevitably conclude that the negative consequences of this will be less than continuing to allow your impostor syndrome to guide your behavior, feelings, and actions.

Finally, so much of impostor syndrome is based on the way that you frame your life. Effectively, when you bow to impostor syndrome, you are framing things that you do negatively rather than positively. It is therefore logical to reframe things in your life, including failure and fear. Instead of thinking of your failures as endings, consider them as opportunities to achieve the results that you want going forward. By reframing what you previously perceived as a failure as an opportunity, you can figure out what you did wrong, and improve your performance.

Equally, you can reframe competence as a level of essentially being good enough, rather than perfect. Experts across all manner of fields never achieve perfection, instead, accepting that they must be able to make mistakes and learn from these errors of judgment and performance. This is another example of having the opportunity to grow as a person.

Fear can also be reframed as excitement. There is a huge amount of overlap between nervousness and anticipation, and your body can't tell the difference between the two. So the next time that you're feeling nervous, you could instead tell yourself repeatedly that you're excited, and use this as a coping mechanism.


In summary, virtually everyone feels like an impostor at some time or other, and the majority of people actually develop some form of impostor syndrome. You should, therefore, understand that any feelings of inadequacy that you develop in this area are perfectly normal, and that there are coping strategies available that can help you overcome the worst dose of impostor syndrome.

Central to this process is adjusting your mindset. In order to stop feeling like an impostor, you must stop thinking like an impostor.

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