You may have heard of the Imposter Syndrome. This phenomenon was first described in 1978 by clinical psychologists Patricia Clance and Suzanne Imes. It´s characteristic is a constant feeling of the lack of legitimacy and competence required to perform one's job. This feeling is accompanied by a sense of deception and the impression that, sooner rather than later, this lack of legitimacy will be exposed.

Its modus operandi is a negative cycle that tends to get stronger:

- Feelings of being an imposter lead us to avoidance strategies,
- Negative results confirm the perceived lack of legitimacy (as positive results are attributed to external factors such as luck or network),
- which causes a lack of self-confidence and, inevitably, ...
- an increase in feelings of being an imposter.

This Syndrome has been an unforgiving companion to me at many points during my career. In my case, probably caused by a lack of self-confidence and two promotions that arrived very early in my professional career. I got to know him, even to name him, the Uncompromising Eye, before I tamed him. During those years, I tried to understand him, to identify what made him stronger. It was a journey, initially personal, which I pursued professionally with other women whom I accompanied as a manager and then as a coach.

Here are some of the things I learned from this journey. Initially observed in women, today we know that Imposter Syndrome affects approximately 70% of people at some point in their career(1).   The causes are multiple and vary for each individual. They are sometimes distant in time and related to self-confidence building.

The Dominant Speech

In this article, I would like to focus on one cause in particular that reinforces the Imposter Syndrome experience of women in corporations : the dominant speech.

Why, you may ask ? How can these corporate messages influence the vision of my own skills ? Here's how. The corporate world is essentially built on male leadership values. These values, such as competition, audacity, strength, have shaped our vision of the corporate world. They have determined the way we approach challenges. Women's leadership values are a minority voice, they have often a limited ground for expression.

Women that are the bearers of these values, embodying them in their practices, in their approach to problem-solving, receive a look of "inadequacy" from the environment tinged with dominant values.

Let me give you an example that will surely ring a bell for many women: a digital transformation project in a large international group with entrenched male values, with strong pressure for rapid and effective deployment.

In one of the subsidiaries, distant from the head office, where a silo structure reigns, including almost a feudal spirit at each site, one of the Directors, the only female one, warns about the human risk of the project. She recommends a deployment strategy that takes the time and resources to achieve the cultural change and cross-functionality between sites required for this transformation. Cultural what ? The members of the Steering Committee stare at her with surprised eyes. Their reaction: "No, we want an immediate change, people will have no choice, they will get used to it. »

There is no need to tell you that the project was a disaster, ending up costing three times the initial budget. But my point here, with this real-life example, is the loneliness felt by this Director confronted by the gaze of her male colleagues as if she came from another planet. Many of you, women readers, will recognize yourselves in this strange feeling. This Director just had a different vision of things, more oriented towards the feminine values of leadership such as listening, patience, empathy, with the same concern in mind: the success of the scheduled transformation.

Feminine leadership values are fundamental to achieving success

Yes, this scenario is often experienced by women. And yet, these feminine leadership values are fundamental to achieving success in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). More than ever, we need cooperation, trust, listening, flexibility, honesty, empathy, etc... Recently, we had painful proof of this during the greatest health crisis the world has known in recent times. These values were decisive in the fight against the pandemic. They are accelerators of performance, factors enabling agility and mobilization of ALL talents.

This is one of the postulates of American authors John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio presented in their book The Athena Doctrine (2).  The authors argue that, some of the key qualities for the success of organizations will be: the ability to connect, humility, openness and transparency, trust, vulnerability.

The importance and impact of these values is demonstrated by numerous studies (3) and by Neurosciences (4). The primary factor in team performance is the psychological security felt by its members. This is the perception of evolving in a benevolent and trustworthy environment that does not represent risks in the interaction between its members. For example, the feeling that my ideas will not be undervalued, that interactions will be transparent, that I will not be put on the back burner because of a failure, etc., 

Women's leadership values are fundamental to creating a psychologically safe environment. It is ironic that, in the absence of psychological safety, women have not been able to put forward, in a sufficiently decisive manner, the leadership values capable of creating this essential condition for performance.

What do women do then? Very schematically:

- either they adapt to the dominant leadership values and are often judged harshly by their environment because they no longer correspond to the archetypal image of women (5);  
- or they prefer to stay at lower management levels where they seem to find a space to exercise an alternative leadership style (6).

The dominant corporate speech, emphasizing mainly male values, is thus a factor contributing to reinforcing the glass ceiling but also an impediment to the performance of the company. The corporate world is squandering 50% of its leadership potential and values that are complementary to existing models.

It is time to liberate another kind of leadership

It is time to liberate another kind of leadership, that integrates the best of two worlds, a leadership that embodies psychological safety and diversity. A leadership that, in a VUCA world, allows organizations to face the challenges of their time and to use all potential resources and options.

Many companies are well aware of this. For some corporations, the gender equality objectives are seen as strategic objectives and not exclusively as Human Resources or Social Responsibility issues.

My message to feminine values: Dare to speak ! Let's dare to stand out for the added value of our approach, of our leadership style. Let's become aware that messages of inadequacy are the result of an ingrained traditional culture that has everything to gain by questioning itself and promoting complementarity.

My message to male values: Observe!! Take a break. Have the curiosity to explore the possibilities of a different way of looking at things. Dare to have the flexibility to go upfront or step back, depending on the context. The search for complementarity will open up a world of possibilities.

To all of us: Let's cultivate the magic of diversity!

  (1) Hibberd, Jessamy. The Imposter Cure. Jessamy Hibberd, 2019.
  (2) John Gerzema, Michael D'Antonio. 2013. The Athena doctrine : how women (and the men who think like them) will rule the future. Jossey-Bass. A Wiley Imprint. Édition du Kindle.
  (3) See Aristoteles Project by Google in 2012.
  (4) On this topic, see Dr Paul Zak study on the book Trust Factor : The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies
  (5) On this topic, see Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In
  (6) On this topic, see Isabelle Lenarduzzi’s interview, CEO for Jump - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWhJn05qEIM&list=PLY-alI5t6P0F004a4NzNTb...

Feminine Values
Male Values

About the Author

Fabiola Ortiz

Fabiola Ortiz

Fabiola Ortiz is a training and development specialist and coach. After 18 years of international corporate experience, 14 of them as a CFO for international affiliates, she has devoted herself to the development of managers and teams towards their full potential.