To denounce imposter syndrome does not seem like a controversial choice.
Of course, organisations have a duty of care over their staff’s mental health and wellbeing, so why shouldn’t HR try to eradicate imposter syndrome wherever possible? Yet, according to Edward Enninful, perhaps one of the most iconic names in publishing and current Editor-in Chief at British Vogue, we shouldn’t be so quick to ditch it.
To understand Enninful’s comments, we must first understand imposter syndrome. Most, if not all, professionals will know acutely the effect that imposter syndrome can have on mental health and wellbeing. It may start as low-level anxiety, feelings of self-doubt or questioning your own credentials, however it can quickly ramp up into the internal narrative of believing yourself a fraud – an imposter, as the name so aptly suggests.
In fact, a study conducted in 2019 by the National Library of Medicine discovered that as much as 82% of all professionals have had to deal with imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. And, it’s not limited to younger professionals working their way up through the ranks. The likes of CEOs and world leaders have discussed their experiences with imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
In essence, it’s the feeling of being inadequate for your own career. The feeling of being ill equipped, unskilled and just moments away from being discovered. The National Library of Medicine’s study concisely defined the phenomenon: ‘Imposter syndrome, also called perceived fraudulence, involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.’
Initially, the term imposter syndrome was used by Pauline Clance, PhD, a clinician at Oberlin College, to describe a perceived feeling of inadequacy in achieving women. Yet as it became a common reference in the global lexicon, it evolved to describe the feelings of internal inadequacy felt by all professionals.
Why does Enninful embrace imposter syndrome?
Enninful is a prime example of imposter syndrome’s ability to touch all proffessionals, regardless of success or power. To explore Enninful’s career is to explore a history of success and perseverance. The Editor-in-Chief of Vogue’s UK arm is also the European Editorial Director of Conde Nast, the first black man, the first working class man and the first gay man to achieve such dizzying success at the company – and an OBE to boot. He’s intelligent, confident and successful. However, none of this has been won without a constant internal struggle.
In a recent conversation with The Guardian, he discussed how the feelings of imposter syndrome have crept in, dulling the concept of his own achievement and at times, giving in to the sense of dread that accompanies it. "Imposter syndrome never leaves you,” he noted in the interview.
However, this begs the question, why does he consider it something of an asset? He says that with a sense of understanding, and a constant consciousness that this internal narrative is simply invented, imposter syndrome has been the tool he’s honed to convince himself to push on, and strive for further success. “Impostor syndrome is what drives me. I will never be one of those people that can sit back and go, ‘I’ve done it.’ I also realise – that’s what pushes me,” he noted.
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So, in essence, it’s not imposter syndrome that Enniful is embracing, but his own defiance in the face of it. And herein lies the lesson that we in HR should be disseminating throughout our organisations. The vast majority of professionals face imposter syndrome at times; but rather than succumb to the feeling of inadequacy, the collective consciousness should in fact be that success comes from rucking against the feeling, and striving to succeed regardless.
Business icon, CEO and Dragon’s Den star, Tej Lavalni, took to LinkedIn in the wake of Enninful’s comments to share a powerful message of support, and discuss his own struggles with imposter syndrome. He said: “Some people are surprised when I admit that I have self-doubts. As the CEO of a national organisation, they assume my life must be consistently wonderful. That perception couldn’t be less true.
“I still worry. I still have angst. I still have imposter syndrome. I still don’t know what the rest of life will hold. I am still human. No one, no matter what social media tells you, has everything figured out. Just focus on yourself — that’s all you can do.”