How law and accountancy firms can solve the imposter syndrome paradox

February 14

Imposter syndrome is synonymous with being a lawyer. It starts at university when you are constantly reminded of the nature of competition for legal training places. 

You work 14-hour days, sacrifice your life and after years of stress and overwhelm, finally win a place with a practice. Except on day one, rather than the feeling of excitement and sense of achievement, you feel like a fraud, wondering if you are good enough. 

That feeling persists. It grinds away inside”.

This is the account of one lawyer’s experience with imposter syndrome. Add another 84 people and that is the number out of 100 who feel the same. 

And only 25% of people are aware they are struggling with imposter syndrome. That is a huge gap in untapped potential.

From my experience supporting lawyers and accountants, it is a similar story across the sector, and many others. 

How do we move away from ‘the one stays the latest makes partner’ to creating an environment where people perform to their high-performing best, without neglecting their values and well-being?  

My ambition with this piece is to demonstrate that the story can be changed with strategies to support individuals and organisations.

What is imposter syndrome? 

It is the persistent belief that one’s success is undeserved or has been illegitimately achieved because of luck or other circumstances.  

In other words, that inner voice of doubt who says that you are not good enough and you are a fraud. An overwhelming fear of success is compounded by the feeling you do not deserve success or need to be perfect. 

It is the constant stream of storytelling in the mind that overthinks what people think about you and hates the feeling of letting people down. 

There is a big paradox with imposter syndrome. 

It is felt more vividly and loudly the more knowledge and experience you acquire. The greater your experience of supporting clients, the more you understand the vast extent of your ignorance. It is ironic, right?

Normal imposter thoughts might be:

  • I need to work harder to prove my worth
  • I do not have enough experience to give my opinion”.
  • I do not belong in this firm”.
  • I cannot make any mistakes otherwise I will let my team down”.
  • I have always been lucky in my career”.
  • If this is not perfect, I will fail”.
  • I am definitely going to get found out for being a fraud”.

It is these thoughts that reinforce the unhelpful cycle of saying yes, working beyond your capacity and trying to perfect everything you do. 

There are three pieces of good news. 

  1. These thoughts/feelings are normal
  2. These thoughts are not facts and can be harnessed
  3. The workplace can help employees overcome the struggle with imposter syndrome

Breaking the negative imposter cycle

What you think, has a direct correlation with your behaviour. How you behave reinforces your thoughts. It becomes a never-ending self-fulfilling cycle. 

Thoughts like ‘I cannot say no because I will let down my team’ will manifest in working longer, stress and overwhelm, mistakes and procrastination. 

I am not good to express my view of view’ will hold you back from taking on opportunities and building confidence. 

Self-awareness and ‘noticing skills’ are key to breaking the cycle.

If you do not break the negative imposter cycle, you will continue to be imprisoned by the rules of your thoughts. 

But when you notice your thoughts, acknowledge them, and accept them, you create a space for a whole new way of being. 

Because just like your experiences at university, or how your past boss micro-managed you, or when you were publicly shamed, the thoughts in your mind are in connection to your past experiences and the environment you are in. 

  • Thoughts do not define who you are as a person
  • Thoughts are not rules
  • You are not your thoughts. 

When you create distance from your thoughts, you can be the person you want to be. 

This can be built by building your mental fitness and harnessing your inner imposter critic.

How do I build mental fitness to overcome the struggle with imposter syndrome? 

High-performing lawyers and accountants share similar traits with elite athletes. A huge amount of self-determination, grit, and mental resilience to be disciplined and committed to the task in hand. You share the competitive drive and need to succeed.  

Yet, our flaws are often strengths overplayed. Imagine a professional ultra-runner who starts to feel physical exhaustion at 70k of a 100k run. The mind is telling them ‘to give up, to rest up, to stop’, but the mind finds a way to keep going. 

A similar comparison can be drawn in the workplace. A constant barrage of competing work priorities. A never-ending to do list. Clients wanting you to make them the priority. Your mind is telling you to stop, take a break, finish at 5pm and clock off. Accept the brain has built a routine of ignoring it and pushing through. 

It might sound like strength of mind. Except, when we have a breakdown, lack productivity, or spend time procrastinating, it can be detrimental. 

To what extent is willpower useful if the consequence is burnout and overwhelm? In fact, it is a myth that willpower is the ingredient for success. Mental fitness is a lot more skilful than that. 

Have you noticed I have been using language like ‘harnessing’ and ‘overcoming the struggle’? 

There is a reason why. 

It is tempting and natural to want to remove, stop or control thoughts that are unpleasant. Muster up willpower to banish the inner self-critic. 

It makes sense because who really enjoys that very uncomfortable feeling in the stomach or increased heart rate in anticipation of a client meeting? Not many. 

Yet it is our attempts to control, rationalise, or use positive thoughts in the face of such feelings and thoughts, that cause the suffering. 

Have a think about this. How many times have you outmuscled your mind through thinking your way through it? 

In fact, you can try the 30-second mind-control exercise to see how you get on. 

Close your eyes, get comfortable and your task is to… experience no thoughts in 30 seconds. Give it a go now. 

How did you get on? 

I suspect your mind was littered with thoughts and your attempts to minimise them, probably encouraged more of them. 

Mental fitness is building psychological flexibility to shift your attention, in the moment, to things that matter. Skilfully harnessing your mind to refocus when you get distracted, with self-compassion and discipline, to being back in the moment.  

In other words, it is not the imposter thoughts that cause you suffering, it is your struggle with them that causes you to be guided away from being your best. 

It is the skill Olympic and Paralympic athletes craft every day to deliver their high-performing best. 

Mental skills strategies for lawyers and accountants

The steps below are not a recipe. You will find, through experimenting, what works for you. These tools can be used in the moment when you feel stressed and overwhelmed. 

Here are 5 practical tools:

  1. The first step is awareness. Practice the skill of ‘catching your thought’ by noticing it. This stops you from acting on unhelpful thought and feeling. Noticing is the gap between the thought and action. 
  2. Accept and acknowledge your thought, without judgement. Rather than trying to change your thought or get rid of it, get comfortable with sitting with the feeling and thought. When we struggle with it, we fuse with it, meaning we get tangled with it. 
  3. Distance yourself from the thought. Say to yourself, ‘I am noticing I am having the thought I am a fraud’. You become the observer of the thought, rather than the content of it. 
  4. Exercise your inner imposter. Rather than keeping it in, find an outlet. Write down your thoughts. Talk through your feelings with a trusted person who will listen (who understands that you are not your thoughts, and you simply want to let them out without judgement or intervention). Exercising the mind shifts the blood supply from the emotional region of the brain to the frontal cortex, which thinks more rationally. 
  5. Refocus your attention back into the moment by choosing an action that serves you. Build your confidence by putting into a situation that builds courage. Start small and build it up. It strengthens your mental fitness and gives your imposter evidence you can do hard things. 

Just like Olympic athletes dealing with pressure, overcoming the struggle with imposter syndrome takes practice. A regular commitment to harnessing the inner voice to strengthen your mental fitness. I expand on this topic in my imposter mindset course.

How can I help my team?

A huge amount. It starts with making a pledge that you are willing to tackle the very subject of imposter syndrome. To take a person-centred approach to helping people be their best. 

You put a flag in the ground that signals: ‘How you feel matters to us. We care about who you are, and we are going to make a commitment to support you’. 

The way employees feel at work is connected to the workplace environment. Imposter syndrome is complex and is influenced by many factors, yet workplace conditions can have a huge destabilising or enabling impact. 

So how do you go about enabling support?

  1. It starts with empathy: speaking with employees and understanding how they are feeling. Schedule conversations for employees to get vulnerable, without dismissing or judging what they say. Empathy is seeking to understand their view of the world. You are not seeking to understand what they are doing or how they are performing, but how they feel and think in the workplace. (It should be noted that research shows that imposter syndrome can be higher amongst groups such as women, underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious groups and the LBGTQ+ community.)
  2. Second is compassion: Ask, ‘how can we support you?’. Empathy is understanding, compassion is committing to supporting. And sometimes, just asking the question can be enough for someone to feel like they are valued. Add up all the accumulative data from your team and it will provide powerful themes that you can explore and perhaps, act on.
  1. Integrity: Tell them you will report back on what you are going to do. And make that pledge. The biggest unintended consequence of listening and compassion is lacking integrity in your word. Whether it is a commitment to checking in more, providing individual support or wider team support/enhancements, integrity is key to trust. 
  2. Create belonging in the team: high-performing teams have the highest score of belonging and psychological safety. Belonging is a result of psychological safety, trust and individuals feeling like they can be themselves. Prioritise team building sessions that focus on getting to know each other, building trust, and cultivating vulnerability. 
  3. Invite pragmatic ideas: the nature of law and accountancy means the workload will always feel like overload. Long hours, competing priorities and client demands increase feelings of imposter syndrome. Invite team members to come up with solutions to embed more effective ways of working both individually and collectively. 
  4. Psychological tools: people-pleasing, fear of letting team members down, worrying about what people think, overthinking and perfectionism are symptoms of the imposter voice. Explore ways to find resources to support individuals manage their internal dialogue. It further demonstrates you care and helps team members reduce stress and overwhelm and reach their potential. 

High-performing teams are built on a foundation of belonging. 

If you are wanting to cultivate a high-performing team environment, prioritise ‘belonging’ a key strategic focus. That’s the foundation for overcoming imposter syndrome and helping people reach their high-performing personal best. 

The accumulative effective of supporting employees to build mental fitness will enable a happier, fulfilled, and successful team. An investment in team culture will keep talent, save resources and be attractive place for new recruits. 

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