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Two Neils walk into a room…. A story for leaders.

Posted about 2 months ago by Dr Terri Simpkin


There’s a lovely story about two Neils.  A story about two incomparable individuals in their fields.  

Simply put, Neil Gaiman (bestselling author and inimitable human) tells of a moment shared at an event in a room filled with ‘great and good people’. Surrounded by this overt talent, he writes that he felt sure he was unqualified to be there and he’d surely be found out at some point.  

Lurking at the back of the room, Neil turns to chat to an elderly gentleman, also called Neil, who, by way of a second extraordinary coincidence, was thinking ‘what the heck was he doing there among such a gathering.'  

So we have one Neil, the brilliant author of works such as 'The Sandman: Book of Dreams', 'Neverwhere', 'Coraline' and 'Norse Mythology', and another Neil, both feeling like total fakers.  The second Neil, it needs to be noted, was Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

Can you imagine this?  Two men with an astonishing track record of achievements thinking of themselves as impostors.  Neither one of them feeling qualified to be in that room. Both of them fearing at some point they’re going to be found out.

To quote Neil Armstrong, “what the heck?”

The term impostor syndrome has become a bit of a buzzword of late (word to the wise, it’s not a syndrome at all – it’s a phenomenon!!).

It’s often identified as something that exists between the ears of individuals who are often high achievers, outwardly confident and seemingly able to take on all that their jobs and the world around them can pitch their way.  

Inside, however, they’re often a bit of a mess of fear, self-deprecation and crippling embarrassment.  For some, the daily fear of being found out leads to anxiety and disengagement from the enjoyment of work or other life pursuits.

It’s common, and it’s been given a lot of airtime on social media in particular.  Much of it just scratching the surface of what is a broad and complex construct.

It needs to be seen for what it is - a social construction

My work is extending the notion that this is an individual thing, to a more realistic this is a ‘social thing’. I’m highlighting how this impacts the people who live and work alongside those who experience this illogical fear of being found out as an intellectual phoney.

What if you were the manager or colleague of someone who feels like a phoney?  

It’s likely that you are. If you’ve never experienced the impostor phenomenon, it's almost certain that you’re working with people who have. If you’re a manager or leader of others, it’s a given that you’ll be charged with the responsibility of getting the best out of someone who may, without reason, be feeling like a faker in their own role.

Consider this.  

How much more could you achieve as a team if everyone felt that their ideas had merit and were not afraid to put forward innovative, creative and possibly game-changing ideas?  How many great ideas are being squirrelled away because they’re captive in the heads of people too afraid to let those ideas out?

How much could we reduce pay gaps and inequality of benefits if everyone had the same level of certainty about their value, and asked for what they were worth, rather than what they think they can get?

How much more engagement and job satisfaction could you achieve in your teams if everyone felt sure that they did, indeed, deserve to be in their job and that it wasn’t at risk due to minor setbacks or mistakes.

Issues such as lack of productivity and innovation, inequality in pay and other benefits (particularly in terms of gender inequality), and lack of engagement are all issues currently experienced by workforces and in workplaces all over the globe.  The broader construct of the impostor phenomenon underpins all of them – and more.

So, far from being a ‘thing’ that individuals experience, it’s an issue for leaders, managers and peers to address.  The impostor phenomenon is socially constructed and it’s ‘fuelled’ through our social interactions; particularly those at work.

As a leader, consider this. 

What do Michelle Obama, Neil Gaiman and Neil Armstrong all have in common?  They’ve all publicly announced that they’ve all thought themselves to be a bit of a faker at times.  They’ve experienced that often debilitating sense of being ‘less than..’ their peers and that they have a fear of not quite being as good as others believe them to be

If people with astonishing careers (like the two Neils) feel like a faker at times, how many of your peers, colleagues and friends feel like this too?  What latent potential is being diminished for fear of presenting it to the world?

Social media doesn’t do this topic the justice, or the examination it deserves. But never fear! I’ll be posting about what you can do about it if you’re a leader, manager, or if you’re in human resources or a colleague of someone who appears to experience the very real, and sometimes seriously debilitating, sense of being ‘less than’.  

This blog was written by Dr Terri Simpkin, a leading expert in the ‘Impostor Phenomenon’. You can find her original blog here, as well as many more resources surrounding the subject here. We are also hosting a series of FREE events surrounding the Impostor Phenomenon, you can sign up here, or via our events section.

Braver Stronger Smarter is an integrated, evidence-based suite of programmes that can help individuals and organisations improve diversity, inclusion and pay equality.

Contact Dr Terri Simpkin by visiting www.braverstrongersmarter.com or forfakesake.org

If you are interested in reading Macildowie's blogs, you can find them here