Imposter syndrome — the feeling of being unqualified for a position or task, despite evidence to the contrary — is having a moment. There are books about it, support groups devoted to it and studies looking into it. Tom Hanks, Michelle Obama and Tina Fey are just some of the celebrities who confess to feeling they don’t belong in the spotlight.
Experts say imposter syndrome isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s acknowledged and dealt with.
For a family office, that means keeping communication lines open and paying close attention to succession plans to ensure people are put in roles that match their skills and interests.
Podcast host Pippa Woodhead said she pushed through feelings of self-doubt to start a business interviewing business leaders and experts in various fields. “I still experience imposter syndrome regularly, and I’m not sure it will ever completely go away,” said Woodhead, now head of podcasts at the professional-development company Tigerhall.
Recognizing that others have the same feeling helped banish that imposter anxiety, Woodhead said. “I’ve spoken to so many brilliant people who also feel imposter syndrome, and hearing these stories has helped knowing it’s very normal and also common amongst high achievers,” she said.
"If you’re in a family office, living under the pressure of managing high-wealth clients — usually highly demanding high-wealth clients — you’re often asked to do very hard things,” said psychotherapist Carl Nassar, a former Colorado executive director of LifeStance Health who is now affiliated with The Great Culture Lab.
That pressure “can make it easy to think that maybe, just maybe, you don’t know what you’re doing; that someone else must know better than you; that you’re just an imposter at work,” Nassar said.
Colleagues in a family office may also be relatives, making it easy for imposter syndrome to creep in, said Donna Marino, a coach and psychologist who works with family businesses and high-performing individuals and teams. It’s common for adults to fall back into childhood roles around family members, she said, and in a family office, “you bring all of those dynamics into the business.
“When somebody walks into a new position in the company, or when you’re engaging at a higher level, it can be hard to get your family to see you in that professional role and to give you the same respect they would maybe give somebody else in that role.”
Women may be particularly prone to imposter syndrome, particularly when they reach higher levels of responsibility.
“Some of that is because of a lack of female role models in executive roles,” Marino said. Many family offices continue to put males in line for the top jobs when they lay out succession plans, and “it’s harder for women to accept themselves in those roles when they don’t have those role models,” she said.
Celebrate moving out of your comfort zone
Someone suffering from imposter syndrome may be reticent about speaking up or trying to “fly under the radar,” Marino said. Having the “self-awareness to realize you’re feeling sort of shaky” is the first step to pulling out of it, she said.
Leaders need to be alert for signs of imposter syndrome as well. Someone who withdraws, procrastinates or hesitates to volunteer for projects or assignments might be anxious that they’re not up to the task at hand, Marino said.
While it’s good to acknowledge imposter syndrome, leaning into the experience too much isn’t healthy, said Marino.
“Right now, it’s a hot topic, and I think it’s really getting pathologized,” she said. “We have to start seeing it as a normal part of the process of growing and stretching. In some ways, it should be celebrated, because it means you’ve moved out of your comfort zone.”
Marino advises turning those feelings of anxiety from negatives into positives. “It’s usually when we’re expanding and growing that we feel this way,” she said. “If we can look at it as a positive thing rather than a negative thing, we’ll move through it easier.”
For example, instead of saying, “I have imposter syndrome,” say, “I’m having experiences of feeling like an imposter.” That “growth mindset” will make it easier to turn around, she said.
The key to keeping imposter syndrome out of a workplace is to create a “healthy culture” that supports everyone and encourages self-awareness, said Malika Begin, founder and chief executive of Begin Development, which provides coaching to individuals, teams and organizations. If a company isn’t clear on culture and mission, “people are untethered,” she said.
In her one-on-one coaching business, Begin said, she often hears lines like “I just got lucky” or “I just kind of fell into” a role. She encourages clients to understand and appreciate their strengths and unique talents.
Young people in a family business may think they have to step into their parents’ shoes and worry that they won’t be able to fill them, Begin said. They also may be concerned about being viewed as beneficiaries of nepotism, she said.
Parents, on the other hand, may envision roles for their children that don’t fit their skills or desires, Begin said. “If the goals you set out for your kid are [to] take over the accounting department, and they’re really bad at math but an amazing salesperson, the goals are not aligned with their ability,” she said.
It’s important for families to have “really honest conversations” before deciding which person is going to fill which role and to listen even if a family member wants a career outside the business, Begin said.
A culture that “deals with honest feedback” is the best way for a company to combat imposter syndrome and encourage growth, said Begin. “Focusing on goals and achievements helps mitigate imposter syndrome,” she said. “Everything is about promoting a healthy work culture.”