Feeling like a fraud? Understanding imposter syndrome and its impact on healthcare teams

What leader hasn’t felt like a fraud at some point in their career? A little bit of second-guessing and self-doubt over your ability to perform a job (despite the education, experience and credentials that prove you can) is a completely natural response, especially when adjusting to a new role or facing a new challenge. But, when this fraudulent feeling is left unchecked, it answers to a different name—imposter syndrome.

Known initially as imposter phenomenon, the term was coined in the 1970s by a pair of female researchers to describe the internal experience observed in high-achieving women. “Despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, these women do not experience an internal sense of success,” explained Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their seminal 1978 study. “They consider themselves to be ‘impostors.’ Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

In the decades since this concept was born, researchers have documented these feelings of fraudulence among men and women, in many industries and roles, and across various ethnic and racial groups. In other words, imposter syndrome is not defined by gender, race, industry or even position level within a company.

So, if it’s so prevalent, why do we even need to pay attention to it? Because if left unchecked, imposter syndrome can be paralyzing, it can cause sloppy decision-making or it can send the afflicted in pursuit of perfection. No matter what path imposter syndrome takes, the destination can be the same: burnout, both for the individual experiencing it and the teams they lead.

To understand more about imposter syndrome and its impact on healthcare executive teams, we checked in with Jennifer LeMieux, chief operating officer of Gaffey Healthcare and HealthTechS3, who shared her own experience with imposter syndrome as well as some actionable steps leaders can take to keep the fraudulent feeling at bay.

The fear is real

If you want to become a medical doctor, there’s a clear path toward being qualified to do so. But when you think about it, there’s no single training program or school to be a COO—or any executive for that matter. Sure, you attain your MBA or MHA, but beyond that, qualifications aren’t rigid. That leaves the door wide open for imposter syndrome.

“In this job, every day there’s a new problem to solve, and every day there’s a new opportunity for second-guessing,” LeMieux says. “Imposter syndrome is knowing that you’re using an organized, methodical, disciplined approach to reach a reasonable solution, but still wondering if that’s enough. What if you should have been less disciplined and more creative? What if you’ve been serving for too long and don’t see new answers to old problems now? It’s the fear that you may not be worthy and continuing to question your ability and your success.”

A compounding effect

LeMieux agrees that imposter syndrome is not biased toward one population set or another. “A line staff member three months out of college can be crippled by fear and anxiety as easily as a chief executive officer,” she says. But the fallout can be more severe when the C-suite is involved.

“It is not uncommon for C-level leadership in hospitals to have an average tenure of three to five years,” she says. “We have to ask ourselves, why? And when you consider the prevalence of imposter syndrome with the intense financial, clinical and cultural stress of a pandemic, then it’s easy to understand how a shift in mindset may occur, causing them to believe that they’re no longer qualified to lead well or that their leadership is not fully due to their own experience and skills.”

3 tips for keeping imposter syndrome in check

Feelings of self-doubt will no doubt arise. But they don’t have to negatively affect your ability to lead. Whether you’re wrestling with your own self-doubt or want to keep it from impacting the teams you lead, here are 3 practical tips to consider:

  1. Connect. In today’s post-pandemic environment, many of us still have limited ability to physically connect with mentors, colleagues and friends. Counter imposter syndrome by creating a support network, and encouraging young leaders in your organization to do the same. “Have others with whom you can discuss and brainstorm work-related issues,” LeMieux suggests. “Share your solutions. Listen to their ideas. Think about new ones together. This will begin to create new energy.”
  2. Challenge your inner critic. When someone suggests, “That’s a good idea,” take it at face value. Don’t let your inner imposter glean anything else from it. Another way to challenge your inner critic is to remind yourself often of past successes. “This is not done with arrogance but with courage,” she says.
  3. Adopt a growth mindset. As COO of two healthcare companies, LeMieux knows every day is a chance to learn something new and face a new challenge. Encourage a culture that values this growth mindset and take care to praise the effort, not just the outcome.